Family law pertains to legal matters concerning families and domestic relations. It encompasses various aspects like marriage, domestic partnerships, issues that arise during marriages (e.g., abuse, adoption, child custody), and the dissolution of these relationships (e.g., divorce, annulment). Within the realm of family law, a significant focus is placed on the Hindu Succession Act of 1956.
This article primarily centres on disqualification provisions within the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, examining both traditional and contemporary interpretations. It discusses criteria for disqualification, including scenarios involving widows who remarry, individuals convicted of murder, converts to other religions, and cases where heirs may be disqualified. There is also an exception to disqualification in cases involving disease or defects. This article aims to address the disqualification criteria outlined in the Hindu Succession Act while providing valuable insights into this complex aspect of family law.
Who Is An Heir?
According to Section 3(1)(f) of the Hindu Succession Act 1956, an “heir” means any person, male or female, who is entitled to succeed to the property of an intestate under this Act. The order of succession under the Hindu Succession Act varies depending on whether a male or female member of the coparcenary (a Hindu undivided family) dies intestate (without a will). Here is the succession order for both scenarios:
When A Male Member Dies Intestate:
- Class I Heirs: These are the closest relatives and have the highest priority for inheritance.
- Class II Heirs: If there are no Class I heirs, the succession moves to Class II heirs.
- Agnates: If there are no heirs in Class I or Class II, agnates (relatives through the male line) are considered.
- Cognates: If no heirs are found in Class I, Class II, or among agnates, then cognates (relatives through blood connections other than the male line) come into play.
When A Female Member Dies Intestate:
- Sons and Daughters: Sons and daughters of the deceased female member are the first in line for inheritance. If any of them are predeceased, their children (the deceased member’s grandchildren) are considered.
- Husband: The deceased female member’s husband is the next in line for inheritance.
- Heirs of Husband: If the husband is not alive or qualified to inherit, the heirs of the husband are considered.
- Mother and Father: If none of the above categories apply, the mother and father of the deceased female member are considered.
- Heirs of Father: If there are no surviving parents, the heirs of the father (paternal relatives) are considered.
- Heirs of Mother: Finally, if no other eligible heirs are found, the heirs of the mother (maternal relatives) are considered for succession.
When Heirs Can Be Disqualified?
Old Hindu Law:
In the past, according to the old Hindu Law, people didn’t have guaranteed rights to inherit property. Instead, there were rules that could disqualify someone from inheriting, like if they had mental or physical issues, diseases, or behaved badly. Even if they were closely related to the person who passed away, these disqualifications could still apply. It’s important to note that these disqualifications weren’t only about religious reasons, like not being able to perform religious rituals. They were also based on social, moral, and physical factors.
Modern Hindu Law:
The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 represents a significant simplification of Hindu law and has minimized the number of disqualifications to a fundamental minimum. Under the present Act, only three types of disqualifications exist, and they are rooted in the violation of fundamental principles of inheritance, which are explained as follows:
- Widow’s remarriage: In 2005, the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act removed Section 24 from the Act. It stated that if certain types of widows remarried before the inheritance process began, they would lose their right to inherit. These widows included the wives of sons, grandsons, and brothers. However, if a widowed mother or stepmother remarried, they could still inherit.
- Murderer: Section 25 of the Hindu Succession Act excludes murderers from inheriting property when there’s no will. It specifies that anyone who commits or helps commit a murder cannot inherit the property of the person they killed or any other property related to the succession they assisted in. There are two types of murderers disqualified under this section:
a) those who murder or assist in the murder of the person from whom they would inherit, and
b)those who murder or assist in the murder of someone else in the context of inheritance.
If someone is found guilty of murdering the deceased, they must give up their rights to the deceased’s property. According to the Privy Council in the case of Smt. Kasturi Devi v. D.D.C [AIR 1976 SC 2105], this is a matter of fairness and justice. The murderer should be prevented from benefiting from their crime and should not be recognized as the rightful heir. The principle is that if murder is committed to expedite the inheritance process, the perpetrator should not profit from it.
3. Conversion: Section 26 of the Hindu Succession Act specifies that the conversion of an heir does not prevent them from inheriting. This provision disqualifies the offspring of the converted heir but does not affect the heir who has embraced a different faith. Additionally, descendants of the heir cannot inherit unless they are Hindus when the succession event occurs.
The property left behind by an heir who has converted will follow the laws of the community they’ve adopted. For instance, if a Hindu converts to Islam, Muslim Law will govern the succession of their property. In the case of Balchand Jairam Lalwani v. Nazneem Khalid Qureshi in 2018, the court clarified that the disqualification under this section applies solely to the offspring of the convert, not to the convert themselves. This section is applicable exclusively to intestate succession and does not pertain to testamentary succession, where the testator’s wishes govern the inheritance.
4. Disease, Defect or Deformity not to Disqualify: In the past, according to Hindu law, if someone had physical disabilities like being deaf, dumb, blind from birth, having leprosy, or mental disabilities like being crazy or very simple-minded, they couldn’t inherit property. But in 1928, the Hindu Inheritance (Removal of Disabilities) Act changed this. It removed all these disqualifications, except for cases of severe mental incapacity like lunacy or extreme idiocy.
Section 28 of this Act stated that having physical defects, diseases, or deformities could no longer be reasons to prevent someone from inheriting property. The only disqualifications that still applied were the ones mentioned in Sections 24 to 26 of the Act.
Despite the significant simplifications brought about by the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 and its subsequent amendments in regulating inheritance among Hindus, there are still some unresolved discrepancies.
The principle of equality, as understood in a society with inherent inconsistencies, is often equated with “equal treatment.” The disqualification rules under the Hindu Succession Act (HAS) are governed by Sections 24 to 28. According to these sections, a person can be excluded from inheritance only in cases of specific remarriages by certain widows as mentioned in the law, when someone commits murder for property gain, or when an individual is a descendant of a convert to another religion. These are the only three conditions under which a person can be disqualified from inheriting, and all other disqualifications from the old Hindu law have been eliminated.
This article is written and submitted by Aditya Kumar Saraswat during his course of internship at B&B Associates LLP. Aditya is a BA.LLB 4th Year student at Aligarh Muslim University.