Supreme Court Verdict on Daughters’ Inheritance Rights

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Context: Holding that daughters cannot be deprived of their right of equality, the Supreme Court Tuesday ruled that they will have equal coparcenary (joint-heirship) rights in joint Hindu family property even if the father died before the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005.

Relevance: 
Prelims: 

  • Current events of national and international importance.
  • Indian Polity and Governance- Constitution, Political System, Panchayati Raj, Public Policy, Rights Issues, etc.

Mains: GS I- Women Empowerment, Role of women and women’s organization. 

What's the current verdict?

  • A three-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra ruled that a Hindu woman’s right to be a joint heir to the ancestral property is by birth and does not depend on whether her father was alive or not when the law was enacted in 2005.
  • The court decided that the amended Hindu Succession Act, which gives daughters equal rights to ancestral property, will have a retrospective effect.
  • The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005 gave Hindu women the right to be coparceners or joint legal heirs in the same way a male heir does. 
  • The provisions contained in substituted Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, confer the status of coparcener (equal rights in inheritance) on the daughter born before or after amendment in the same manner as a son with same rights and liabilities.
  • The rights can be claimed by the daughter born earlier with effect from September 9, 2005. 
  • “Since the coparcenary is by birth, it is not necessary that the father coparcener should be living as on 9.9.2005,” the ruling said.
  • The SC expanded and promoted the amendments done in 2005 which removed the discrimination as contained in Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 by giving equal rights to daughters.
  • It also clarified that an unregistered oral partition, without any contemporaneous public document, cannot be accepted as the statutorily recognised mode of partition.
    • “However, in exceptional cases where the plea of oral partition is supported by public documents and partition is finally evinced in the same manner as if it had been affected by a decree of a court, it may be accepted,” the Bench held.
  • It also directed High Courts to dispose of cases involving this issue within six months since they would have been pending for years.

What is coparcenary?

  • A joint Hindu family means all people lineally descending from a common ancestor, including wives and unmarried daughters.
  • But a Hindu coparcenary is a much narrower group. It consists of the ‘propositus’ (the person from whom a line of descent is traced) and three of his descendants.
  • Coparcenary property is the one which is inherited by a Hindu man from his father, grandfather, or great grandfather.
  • The property in coparcenary is held as joint owners, and only a coparcener has a right to demand a partition of this property.
  • Before 2005, the coparceners included only sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons who are holders of joint property.
  • But the 2005 amendment to Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act essentially gave equal rights to daughters in ancestral property.
  • So the amendment allowed daughters to be recognised as coparceners by birth in the family, similar to sons.

Hindu Succession Act, 1956

  • The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 is an Act of the Parliament of India enacted to amend and codify the law relating to intestate or unwilled succession.
  • The Act lays down a uniform and comprehensive system of inheritance and succession into one Act.
  • Mitakshara school of Hindu law was codified as the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 and it only recognised males as legal heirs.
  • It applied to everyone who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion.
  • Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and followers of Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj, are also considered Hindus for this law.
  • In a Hindu Undivided Family, several legal heirs through generations can exist jointly.
  • Traditionally, only male descendants of a common ancestor along with their mothers, wives and unmarried daughters are considered a joint Hindu family. The legal heirs hold the family property jointly.

Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005

  • The 174th Law Commission Report had recommended the reform in Hindu succession law.
  • Before the 2005 amendment, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu had made this change in the law and Kerala had abolished the Hindu Joint Family System in 1975.
  • The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, amended Section 4, Section 6, Section 23, Section 24 and Section 30 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956.
  • Women were recognised as coparceners or joint legal heirs for partition arising from 2005. 
  • Section 6 of the Act was amended to make a daughter of a coparcener also a coparcener by birth “in her own right in the same manner as the son”.
  • It also gave the daughter the same rights and liabilities “in the coparcenary property as she would have had if she had been a son”.
  • The law applies to ancestral property and to intestate succession in personal property, where succession happens as per law and not through a will.
  • The amendment essentially furthers equal rights between Hindu males and females in society through legislation.

How did the case come about?

  • While the 2005 law granted equal rights to women, questions were raised in multiple cases on whether the law applied retrospectively, and if the rights of women depended on the living status of the father through whom they would inherit.
  • Different benches of the Supreme Court had taken conflicting views on the issue.
  • Different High Courts had also followed different views of the top court as binding precedents.
  • In Prakash v Phulwati (2015), a two-judge bench headed by Justice A K Goel held that the benefit of the 2005 amendment could be granted only to “living daughters of living coparceners” as on September 9, 2005 (the date when the amendment came into force).
  • In February 2018, contrary to the 2015 ruling, a two-judge bench headed by Justice A K Sikri held that the share of a father who died in 2001 will also pass to his daughters as coparceners during the partition of the property as per the 2005 law.
  • Then in April that year, yet another two-judge bench, headed by Justice R K Agrawal, reiterated the position taken in 2015.
  • These conflicting views by Benches of equal strength led to a reference to a three-judge Bench in the current case.
  • The ruling now overrules the verdicts from 2015 and April 2018.
  • It settles the law and expands on the intention of the 2005 legislation “to remove the discrimination as contained in section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 by giving equal rights to daughters in the Hindu Mitakshara coparcenary property as the sons have”.

What was the government’s stand?

  • Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued in favour of an expansive reading of the law to allow equal rights for women.
  • He referred to the objects and reasons of the 2005 amendment.
  • According to S.G, the Mitakshara coparcenary law not only contributed to discrimination on the ground of gender but was oppressive and negated the fundamental right of equality guaranteed by the Constitution of India.



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