The Supreme Court discussed the principles of succession as per Hindu Succession Act 1956 in a recent judgment.
Referring to Sections 6 and 8 of the Act, the Court said that on death of a Hindu male, notional partition of his property will take place, and it will devolve on the legal heirs based on their respective shares. Therefore, such property will no longer retain the character of a ‘Joint Family Property’ after such partition. The heirs will take after the property as tenants-in-common and will enjoy joint possession till the property is demarcated on their respective shares as per a settlement deed.
A bench of Justices Deepak Gupta and S Abdul Nazeer delivered the judgment in the case M Arumugam vs Ammaniammal and others.
The parties in the case were children of one Moola Gounder. He had died in 1971, leaving behind his widow, two sons and three daughters. He had not executed any Will before death.
In 1989, the youngest daughter filed a suit for partition.
The sons opposed the suit stating that a release deed was executed by the mother and the daughters by giving up their shares in favour of the sons. It was stated that the mother had acted as guardian on behalf of the plaintiff, who was a minor then.
Later, a partition deed was executed amongst the sons, of which one of the witnesses was the husband of the plaintiff.
The plaintiff then raised a plea that the release deed was void ab initio as the mother was not competent to relinquish her share by acting as her guardian.
The trial court dismissed the suit by holding that the plaintiff should have challenged the release deed within three years of attaining majority.
In her appeal, the High Court set aside the dismissal of suit, with the following findings :
- The property continued to be joint family property in the hands of legal heirs even after the death of Moola Gounder.
- Since it was joint family property, mother could not have acted as guardian of the minor plaintiff to relinquish her shares.
- So, the release deed was void ab initio.
The HC decreed the suit. Challenging this, the brothers of the plaintiff appealed to Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court referred to Sections 6 & 8 of the HSA to observe :
- When a Hindu male with female heirs in Class-I dies, his interest in coparcenary property devolves by succession and not survivorship.
- Notional partition of the property takes place, and the heirs succeed to the property as tentants-in-common.
- The property does not retain character of joint family property anymore.
Based on these principles and precedents, the SC observed :
“it is apparent that after the death of Moola Goundar, his interest in the coparcenary property would devolve as per the provisions of Section 8 since he left behind a number of female Class I heirs”.
The Court also referred to Section 30 of the Act, which says that coparcenary share was capable of being disposed of by testament.
“This (Sec 30) also clearly indicates that the property was not to be treated as a joint family property though it may be held jointly by the legal heirs as tenants in common till the property is divided, apportioned or dealt with in a family settlement”.
The consequence of holding the property as not joint family property was that the there was no legal impediment in the mother acting as the guardian of the minor to release her share.
As per Section 6 of the Hindu Minority and Guardians Act, natural guardian of the minor cannot act in respect of minor’s undivided interest in joint family property. That embargo will not be attracted if the property is held to be not joint family property.
Karta cannot act as guardian in respect of minor’s share in joint family property
The plaintiff had argued that it was the ‘karta’ of the joint family property, which was the first son, who should have acted as her natural guardian in respect of the property and not the mother.
The Court said that this submission was not sustainable, even if the property was assumed to be joint family property. This is because of the conflict of interest which would be generated when the ‘Karta’, acting as a minor’s guardian, would be relinquishing the minor’s share in favour of himself.
“When such dissolution takes place and some of the members relinquish their share in favour of the Karta, it is obvious that the Karta cannot act as the guardian of that minor whose share is being relinquished in favour of the Karta. There would be a conflict of interest. In such an eventuality it would be the mother alone who would be the natural guardian and, therefore, the document executed by her cannot be said to be a void document”.
The Court observed that at best,the release deed was a voidable document under Section 8 of the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, which should have been challenged within 3 years of the plaintiff’s attainment of majority.
The Court also noted that when the release deed was executed in 1973, the plaintiff was aged 17 years. The partition deed amongst the sons was executed in 1980, in which the husband of the plaintiff was an attesting witness. The suit was filed nine years later. These circumstances also led the Court to discard the plaintiff’s plea.
On these findings, the SC allowed the appeal, to restore the trial court’s dismissal of the suit.