Bona Vacantia: Dying With No Will or Relatives in Singapore

Last updated on May 27, 2021

White lilies and black ribbon against a white wall

When a person dies without a will in Singapore, there are certain rules under the Intestate Succession Act that presume that there are existing next-of-kin who will become the beneficiaries of the deceased’s estate. But what if a person dies without leaving a will and without any surviving entitled next-of-kin?

This article introduces the concept of Bona Vacantia and aims to provide guidance on what happens if a person passes away without a will and without any next-of-kin in Singapore. It will cover:

What is Bona Vacantia?

The term Bona Vacantia literally means “ownerless goods” or “vacant goods”. Such goods refer to the assets that form part of the estate of a deceased person who has:

  1. No valid will; and
  2. No surviving next-of-kin entitled to the estate as enumerated in the Intestate Succession Act (i.e. spouse, children, parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles and/or aunts).

Under Singapore law, these assets rightfully go to the government.

Can Anyone Make a Claim on a Bona Vacantia Estate?

Despite the above rule however, section 27 of the Civil Law Act provides that a person who is able to make an equitable or moral claim on an estate considered as Bona Vacantia may still be able claim the assets in the estate.

An equitable or moral claim refers to the claim that a person may have to the assets of the deceased based on a reasonable expectation that the assets would have been left to the claimant for a variety of reasons.

Such reasons include recognition of the:

  • Closeness of the relationship between the deceased and the claimant; as well as
  • Care that the claimant may have rendered to the deceased before the deceased passed away.

Anyone can make an equitable or moral claim on a Bona Vacantia estate, as long as they can:

  1. Produce the necessary proof to substantiate such claim; and
  2. Prove that the deceased has no surviving next-of-kin that could make a claim based on the rules of intestate succession.

All equitable or moral claims are assessed on a case-by-case basis. However, the following factors may guide granting of the claim, subject to individual merits of the claim:

  • Length and nature of relationship between the claimant and deceased person;
  • Any legal or moral obligations the deceased had towards the claimant;
  • Behaviour of claimant towards the deceased while the deceased was still alive, such as if the claimant provided care for the deceased while s/he was still alive; or
  • Last wishes of the deceased (if these had not been put in writing in a valid will).

What Types of Assets Can Be Made the Subject of a Claim Against a Bona Vacantia Estate?

All types of assets, both movable and immovable, that form part of the estate of the deceased can be the subject of an equitable or moral claim. This also includes unnominated Central Provident Fund monies.

However, the success of claims on such assets – namely whether the claim will succeed against all or only part of the assets – depends on the specific circumstances and will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Is There a Time Limit for Making a Claim on a Bona Vacantia Estate?

There is no time limit for making an equitable or moral claim. However, there is a waiting period prior to making a claim, as follows:

Type of Estate Waiting Period
Estate involves immovable or real property Not less than 3 years from death
Estate does NOT involve immovable property Not less than 6 months from death

The waiting period ensures that an entitled next-of-kin (who may not have been sufficiently informed of the death of the deceased, or who may need time to prove their claim as next-of-kin) would have had sufficient time to make a claim under the rules of intestacy, before the estate becomes open to moral or equitable claims by persons unrelated to the deceased.

How to Make a Claim Against a Bona Vacantia Estate in Singapore

If the total assets in a Bona Vacantia estate are worth not more than $50,000, a person with a moral or equitable claim to it in Singapore may make their claim through the Public Trustee.

The Public Trustee will then put up a warrant for the Minister of Law to sign upon completion of administration of the deceased’s estate. If the claim is successful, the warrant will transfer the assets to the claimant.

For a Bona Vacantia estate that is worth more than $50,000, the claimant would have to apply for a Grant of Letters of Administration to administer the estate on their own before proceeding with any moral or equitable claim on the estate.

This application for a Grant of Letters of Administration will also include advertising the death of the deceased and inviting creditors, beneficiaries or next-of-kin to come forward with any claims against the deceased’s estate. This advertisement has to be placed in a major English-language newspaper and a major vernacular newspaper.

The application also has to include proof of reasonable search for potential next-of-kin of the deceased. A copy of the newspaper advertisements, as well as the results of a probate search, should be submitted to the Public Trustee.

After the claimant has completed administration of the deceased’s estate and informed the Public Trustee of this, the Public Trustee will then put up a warrant for the Minister of Law to sign so that the estate assets may be transferred to the claimant.

Are There Fees to Be Paid for Making a Moral or Equitable Claim Against a Bona Vacantia Estate?

Yes, an application fee of $50 must be paid on each claim filed against the estate.

If the Public trustee is also the administrator of the estate, then the Public Trustee’s administration fee will also be charged. This fee is calculated as a percentage of the estate’s value, with a minimum fee of $15.

Can an Estate Be Considered Bona Vacantia if the Deceased Passes Away and Is Survived by a Next-of-Kin From Whom S/He Has Been Estranged for Years?

No. As long as a next-of-kin is entitled to become a beneficiary of the estate under the rules on intestacy, then the estate cannot be considered Bona Vacantia.

This is regardless of the deceased’s estrangement from the next-of-kin or the number of years without communication.

Does Bona Vacantia Apply to Muslim Estates?

No. The Civil Law Act does not apply to properties to be disposed in accordance with Muslim law, including Muslim estates left without a will and without next-of-kin. A Muslim estate without an entitled next-of-kin shall have its assets paid to the Baitulmal.

The Baitulmal is the institution that looks after the assets of the Muslim public. In Singapore, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) administers the Baitulmal.

Making a will is still the most equitable way of ensuring that the estate of a person is administered and distributed in accordance to their wishes after their passing, such as leaving their assets to a close friend or to a charitable institution they had valued in life.

While hiring a lawyer is not strictly necessary to write a will in Singapore, it would still be best to engage a wills lawyer for will-writing assistance. This is to ensure that all the legal requirements are met, especially if the will may be complicated by the inclusion of assets located abroad.

Engaging a competent lawyer to provide assistance in making a will also counters the potential issue of Bona Vacantia. This is so that a person may ensure that after their death their rightful beneficiaries/loved ones are provided for, and need not go through additional administrative and legal hurdles as laid down in this article.

Alternatively, if you are seeking to make a claim against an estate that you believe to be Bona Vacantia, you may also consider engaging a probate lawyer to assist with the application.

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