For the British royals, the death of a loved one is the same as in any wealthy family. After the immediate mourning, there’s an uncomfortable question: What happens to the money?
Unlike other rich families, the royals are given favorable treatment by the government. Neither Charles nor his siblings will have to pay inheritance tax on whatever assets are passed down from their mother, thanks to a 1993 agreement with the government. In announcing it, then-Prime Minister John Major told Parliament that a royal inheritance simply shouldn’t be taxed, citing the “unique circumstances of a hereditary monarchy.”
Yet the public has little chance of learning how much that inheritance will be. As David McClure, an expert on the subject, has noted, “the royal finances are shrouded in fog.”
How wealthy was the queen?
Estimates for the queen’s wealth have to come from outside sources.
Queen Elizabeth II
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Forbes, for example, pegged her net worth at $500 million (around 430 million British pounds, although we will use U.S. dollars here for simplicity). Britain’s Sunday Times put it at $430 million in its 2022 list of Britain’s wealthiest people. In his 2020 book, “The Queen’s True Worth,” McClure estimated it was $468 million.
Regardless, that’s only a fraction of the royal family’s assets. Forbes estimates its worth at $28 billion, pointing to the business front of the royal lineage known as “Monarchy PLC.”
The family’s most impressive official holding is the Crown Estate, a portfolio of assets that includes luxurious London properties worth $19.2 billion. Although formally owned by the family, it is under the control of the British government, which receives the hundreds of millions of dollars the portfolio generates each year.
But the government then gives 25 percent of the Crown Estate’s profit back to the royals under what is known as the “Sovereign Grant.” In 2021, the royal household’s public financial statement listed the grant at about $99 million — money intended to pay for the upkeep of palaces and to meet other expenses. The royals’ significant security costs are not included and instead are paid for out of the British government treasury.
The reigning monarch also controls the Duchy of Lancaster, an “ancient body” responsible for a huge portfolio that encompasses 71 square miles and is worth more than $950 million. The duchy, which was set up in 1399, reported $27 million in profit last year.
Does King Charles get all this money?
The queen’s will has not been made public, and historically, the royal family has not released such details after a monarch’s death.
At some point, however, it should be known which private properties owned by the queen will go to Charles. Both Balmoral Castle in Scotland and the Sandringham Estate in England were passed down to the queen by her father, King George VI.
King Charles automatically received the Duchy of Lancaster. In his first address last week, he confirmed that he had followed tradition and passed his own holding, the Duchy of Cornwall, to his elder son, Prince William.
The portfolio of land and property in the Duchy of Cornwall, which dates to 1337, is significantly larger than the Duchy of Lancaster. It encompasses 0.2 percent of all land in Britain, including the storied Lord’s Cricket Ground and, less glamorously, HM Prison Dartmoor. But its self-reported profit for the most recent tax year was slightly lower than the Lancaster portfolio’s.
The royal family will continue to receive the Sovereign Grant since the new king on Saturday reaffirmed his decision to “continue the tradition of surrendering the hereditary revenues” from the Crown Estate in return for the grant.
Does the royal family pay any taxes?
For the rest of Britain, any inheritance valued over $380,000 results in a 40 percent tax bill. But King Charles will pay nothing on properties, jewels and investments that probably are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The British government outlined the reason in a 2012 memorandum: “The Monarchy as an institution needs sufficient private resources to enable it to continue to perform its traditional role in national life, and to have a degree of financial independence from the Government of the day.”
The same document explains that the British Crown is also not legally liable for income tax or capital gains tax.
The royals do pay some taxes, though. Under the 1993 agreement with the British government, the queen and her eldest son agreed to pay capital gains and income tax on their personal assets and on income derived from crown assets that was not used for official purposes.
As prince, Charles paid a voluntary 45 percent income tax on his personal income from the Duchy of Cornwall. But the arrangement was shrouded in secrecy, with little public oversight of the expenses claimed against this income. His total annual tax liability was not disclosed.
The duchy itself does not pay corporation tax or capital gains tax. In 2013, following reports in the Guardian that the duchy was deliberately avoiding taxes, British lawmakers said it had an “unfair advantage” over other businesses and called for more transparency.
How does the royal family keep its wealth so hidden?
The royal family is under few requirements to disclose details of its wealth, and there are few ways for prying eyes to get a look. The family’s communications with the government are exempt from Freedom of Information requests. Their official papers are kept secret by Britain’s National Archives for at least 50 years.
The lack of transparency has led anti-monarchy groups including Republic to call the monarchy an “unaccountable public institution that has the power, secrecy and influence to willfully abuse its position.” Prem Sikka, a British academic who now sits in the House of Lords, has called the family’s opaque business dealings “the remnant of a bygone feudal age.”
Without a change, many details of the royal family’s private wealth may never be known. Some revealing facts about the Duchy of Lancaster’s offshore investments, for example, came out only in the 2017 Panama Papers leaks. Those detailed roughly $13 million in offshore accounts.
Other reports have suggested questionable foreign dealings or arrangements. Earlier this year, then-Prince Charles was accused of offering to help secure a knighthood for a Saudi national in response to a donation to his charitable foundation. Representatives of Charles denied any impropriety.
And after Prince Andrew, one of his brothers, reached a settlement with a woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her when she was 17, questions followed about how the money for the settlement was raised. The case was linked to Andrew’s controversial friendship with American financier Jeffrey Epstein, a sex offender who died by suicide while awaiting trial.
Does the royal family cost Britain money?
For both monarchists and republicans, the royal family’s balance sheet is a point of contention. Do the royals cost the government money, or do they make it money?
On the plus side, the royals draw tourist dollars as well as publicity for Britain. In 2017, a valuation company called Brand Finance estimated that the monarchy boosted the tourism sector by the equivalent of more than $640 million.
And while the Sovereign Grant has been growing, which means more money for the royals, the Crown Estate provides a huge sum of money to the government.
Anti-monarchy groups dispute claims that the royal family brings in money — “a figment of the spin doctor’s imagination,” they say — and contend that the monarchy actually costs the country about $400 million a year. McClure, the expert on the royals, has estimated the government’s cost to protect the family at well over $100 million annually.
Reports in the British press have suggested that King Charles, a conservationist by nature, hopes to “slim down” the monarchy, with fewer “senior royals” involved in public engagements. He has also talked about opening up more royal properties to the public, a move that could theoretically bring in more revenue.
How much exactly? Don’t hold your breath.
Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.