Guest post by Pallavi Mohan
Recently, the Supreme Court clarified what happens to a father’s self-acquired property, if he died intestate (meaning, without a will) before the year 1956 and is survived only by a daughter.
Why is the year ‘1956’ relevant?
In India, personal laws and customs form the basis of inheritance laws. Being established principles, they are largely unwritten.
However, in 1956, the Parliament codified Hindu customary laws that governed succession and enacted the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (the Act). As per this Act, daughters and sons have an equal right to inherit both the coparcenary and self-acquired property of their fathers.
What is the difference between “coparcenary property” and “self-acquired property”?
According to Hindu customary law, a Hindu joint family or HUF (Hindu Undivided Family) was considered a coparcenary, with a man as Karta (the head of the coparcenary). ‘Coparcenary property’ is ancestral property, which is jointly owned by all members of the HUF. All members have a right in that property by birth. When the Act was enacted, only men were recognised as coparceners. However, an amendment to the Act in 2005 altered this situation and now women—irrespective of whether they are born before or after the year 2005—are also considered coparceners and acquire a right in the joint family property at birth.
“Self-acquired property” is the property purchased by a person from their personal income, instead of the funds of the joint family. Property acquired through inheritance (not ancestral property), partition, or gift is also considered “self-acquired property”. The owner of this property has an absolute right to it and can dispose of it in any manner they choose.
What is meant by dying “intestate”?
A person is said to have died “intestate” when they die without leaving a valid will. Since the 2005 amendment to the Act, when a Hindu man dies “intestate”, his coparcenary and self-acquired property is distributed amongst his heirs—including daughters—according to the rules provided under the Act.
Before this amendment, only the ‘self-acquired property’ of a Hindu man who died “intestate” would be distributed equally amongst his heirs, irrespective of their gender, as per the rules under the Act. However, his share in the coparcenary property would be distributed through the principle of survivorship, that is, it would be distributed equally between the remaining members of the coparcenary who, before the amendment, were all men.
What did the Supreme Court decide in its recent judgment?
In this case, the Hindu man had died intestate before the enactment of the Act and only a daughter survived him. The Court examined whether she could inherit his self-acquired property or whether it would be given to his next surviving male heir (brother’s son) through survivorship. To clarify the position on this aspect of Hindu personal law, the Supreme Court relied on commentaries of scholars on Hindu Law contained in Vedas, Shrutis and Smritis. They considered the commentaries of four major schools of Hindu Law – Daya Bhaga in Bengal, Mayukha in Bombay, Konkan and Gujarat, Marumakkattayam or Nambudri in Kerala and Mitakshara in other parts of India. After considering all these texts, the Supreme Court found that, as per customary Hindu law, the daughter of a Hindu man who dies intestate has a right to inherit his self-acquired property, rather than his other male heirs.