Jun 30, 2023

Madras High Court Upholds Equal Property Rights of Home Makers

Recently, the Madras High Court held that a wife contributes to the household through domestic chores. This contribution should be acknowledged and factored in while determining property rights. Justice Krishnan Ramasamy said that by taking care of the home, the wife enables her husband to step out and work, without having to worry about the home. Therefore, she is entitled to half of all assets that the husband acquires. This case is significant because there is no law in India so far that recognises a homemaker’s contribution either directly or indirectly.  

What does current Hindu law say?

Under Hindu law, the wife does not have a right to the husband’s ancestral property. However, once the property is divided and her husband gets his share, she can then get a share of this property as his heir upon his death, if he dies intestate i.e. without a will. She can also get his self-acquired property as his heir, if he dies intestate.

However, during the husband’s lifetime, the wife does not have any rights over the property that he may have acquired during the course of the marriage. 

Maintenance and Alimony in Hindu Marriage: 

If the couple gets divorced, the wife is entitled to maintenance, which is not linked to the self-acquired property of the husband. The Hindu law on maintenance is gender-neutral. This means that an application for temporary or permanent maintenance can be filed either by the husband or wife. 

Temporary Maintenance: During the course of the divorce proceedings, if the person does not have independent income to support themselves and/or their children or to pay the necessary legal costs of the case, they can apply to the Court to direct their spouse to pay a sum of money as temporary maintenance. 

Permanent Maintenance or Alimony: The Court can order an amount to be paid as maintenance from one spouse to the other, keeping in mind the lifestyle that they enjoyed in their matrimonial home and considering the income and paying capacity of their spouse. This amount can be modified later if either of their circumstances have changed, for instance if they remarry.

You can read more about maintenance under Hindu law here

Notional Income for a Homemaker

In 2021, while awarding compensation in a motor accident claims case, the Supreme Court had put a notional value to the wife’s income. The Supreme Court had ruled that fixing notional income for a non-earning homemaker “is a step towards the constitutional vision of social equality and ensuring dignity of life to all individuals.” The ruling pointed out that according to the 2011 Census, nearly 159.85 million women stated that “household work” was their main occupation, as compared to only 5.79 million men.

Justice Ramana had said that there can be no fixed formula on calculating the notional income.. The court, in such matters, should try to determine, in the best manner possible, the truest approximation of the value a homemaker adds  to grant monetary compensation.  

What happened in the current case?

In the present case, Kannaian Naidu and others v Kamsala Ammal and others, Kamsala Ammal filed an appeal seeking a share in the properties that were in the name of her deceased husband. The couple married in 1965 and in 1982 the husband moved to Saudi Arabia for a job. The wife stayed at home to take care of the house and children and had no income of her own. She used the money her husband sent home to buy some real estate and jewelry. Upon his return to India in 1994, the husband claimed that she was trying to claim sole ownership over all the properties and alleged that she was trying to sell an asset by giving the power of attorney to a man she was having an affair with. 

In response, the wife asserted her equal entitlement to the property, highlighting her role in taking care of the family while the husband was away, which resulted in her sacrificing employment opportunities. She also claimed that she had sold her ancestral property and utilized funds from her husband’s overseas trip, as well as earned income through tailoring and tutoring.

The wife’s claims to these assets were first contested by her husband and after his death, by her children. In 2015, a local court had rejected Ammal’s right to an equal share. 

 However, the High Court reversed the previous findings by asserting that both the husband and the wife have an equal entitlement to the properties. “In the generality of marriages, the wife bears and rears children and minds the home. She thereby frees her husband from his economic activities. Since it is her performance of her function which enables the husband to perform his, she is in justice, entitled to share her fruits” 

The court highlighted that the job of a homemaker extends for 24 hours and should not be considered equivalent to the job of an earning husband which spans only 8 hours. When a wife willingly gives up her employment and devotes herself to caring for her husband and children, it is unfair to leave her without any form of compensation or support. 

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