Execution of Will| Sufficient to prove attestation of one attesting witness to be in his handwriting when both attesting witnesses are dead

Supreme Court: Explaining the requirement under Section 69 of the Evidence Act pertinent to Section 68 of the Evidence Act that the attestation by both the witnesses is to be proved by examining at least one attesting witness, the bench of SK Kaul and KM Joseph, JJ has held if the signature of the person executing the document is proved to be in his handwriting, then attestation of one attesting witness is to be proved to be in his handwriting.

The Court was deciding the following questions:

  • Is it still the requirement of law when both the attesting witnesses are dead that: under Section 69 of the Evidence Act, the attestation as required under Section 63 of the Indian Succession Act, viz., attestation by the two witnesses has to be proved?
  • Or Is it sufficient to prove that the attestation of at least one attesting witness is in his handwriting, which is the literal command of Section 69 of the Evidence Act apart from proving the latter limb?

Writing a detailed judgment running into over 270 pages, the Court said that in a case covered under Section 69 of the Evidence Act, the requirement pertinent to Section 68 of the Evidence Act that the attestation by both the witnesses is to be proved by examining at least one attesting witness, is dispensed with. It explained

“It may be that the proof given by the attesting witness, within the meaning of Section 69 of the Evidence Act, may contain evidence relating to the attestation by the other attesting witness but that is not the same thing as stating it to be the legal requirement under the Section to be that attestation by both the witnesses is to be proved in a case covered by Section 69 of the Evidence Act.”

In short, the Court held that, in a case covered under Section 69 of the Evidence Act, what is to be proved as far as the attesting witness is concerned, is, that the attestation of one of the attesting witness is in his handwriting. The language of the Section is clear and unambiguous. Section 68 of the Evidence Act, as interpreted by this Court, contemplates attestation of both attesting witnesses to be proved. But that is not the requirement in Section 69 of the Evidence Act.

The Court further said that Section 69 of the Evidence Act manifests a departure from the requirement embodied in Section 68 of the Evidence Act. In the case of a Will, which is required to be executed in the mode provided in Section 63 of the Indian Succession Act, when there is an attesting witness available, the Will is to be proved by examining him. He must not only prove that the attestation was done by him but he must also prove the attestation by the other attesting witness.

“This is, no doubt, subject to the situation which is contemplated in Section 71 of the Evidence Act which allows other evidence to be adduced in proof of the Will among other documents where the attesting witness denies or does not recollect the execution of the Will or the other document. In other words, the fate of the transferee or a legatee under a document, which is required by law to be attested, is not placed at the mercy of the attesting witness and the law enables proof to be effected of the document despite denial of the execution of the document by the attesting witness.”

It was further added:

  • in a case, where there is evidence which appears to conform to the requirement under Section 69, the Court is not relieved of its burden to apply its mind to the evidence and find whether the requirements of Section 69 are proved. The reliability of the evidence or the credibility of the witnesses is a matter for the Court to still ponder over.
  • making a totally incorrect statement in a will arouses suspicion. This is on the principle that the testator would not make an incorrect statement when he makes a will. If he makes a rank incorrect statement the inference is that he would not have made that will.
  • the requirements under Section 33 of the Evidence Act are not to be confused with the ingredients to be fulfilled even in a case under Section 11 of the CPC. The applicability of Section 33 of the Evidence Act also does not depend upon the nature of the decision which is rendered in the earlier proceeding.
  • while the burden to prove the will and to satisfy the conscience of the court that there are no suspicious circumstances or if there are any to explain them is on the propounder of the will, the burden to prove that the will is procured by coercion, undue influence or fraud is on the respondents who have alleged the same.

On the limits on power of a Hindu to execute a will and effect of Section 30 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 thereon

The Court explained that under Mitkashara Law, a Hindu could bequeath his separate and self-acquired properties even prior to the Hindu Succession Act being enacted. A Hindu being a member of the joint family could also possess his separate property which are of various kinds. They include obstructed heritage which is property inherited by a Hindu from another who is a person other than his father, father’s father or great grandfather, Government grant, income of separate property, all acquisitions by means of learning. A Hindu could execute a will bequeathing his separate and selfacquired property. As regards his authority to execute a will concerning his interest in the property of the joint family of which he is a coparcener, the law did not permit such an exercise.

The Court further stated n the case of property of the joint family as long as the property is joint, the right of the coparcener can be described as an interest.

“as long as the family remains joint, a coparcener or even a person who is entitled to share when there is a partition cannot predicate or describe his right in terms of his share. The share remains shrouded and emerges only with division in title or status in the joint family. Once there is a division the share of a coparcener is laid bare.”

Further, after the passage of the Hindu Succession Act even without there being a partition in the sense of a declaration communicated by one coparcener to another to bring about the division it is open to a Hindu to bequeath his interest in the joint family.

“In other words, the words “interest in coparcenary property” can be predicated only when there is a joint family which is in tact in status and not when there is a partition in the sense of there being a disruption in status in the family. Thus, the right of a Hindu in the coparcenary joint family is an interest. Upon disruption or division, it assumes the form of a definite share. When there is a metes and bounds partition then the share translates into absolute rights qua specific properties.”

On the impact of the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act, 1937

The Court explained that Section 3(2) of the 1937 Act contemplates the situation, where, at the time when the Hindu dies after the enactment of the Act in 1937 (it came into force on 14th April, 1937 and it was repealed by Section 31 of the Hindu Succession Act 1956), in order that the widow acquires the same interest as her husband had under Section 3(2), the Hindu must die when he is not separated from the joint property. If a Hindu, when he dies, is separated and, at least, qua him, there is no Hindu Joint Family, it would not be a case where Section 3(2) would apply.

“… a Hindu when he dies intestate he may have an interest in a Hindu joint family and at the same time also have separate properties. Then qua his separate properties, Section 3(1) would apply whereas in regard to his interest in the joint family, Section 3(2) would govern. Section 3(1) cannot apply as the properties in dispute were not his separate properties.”

[V. Kalyanaswamy (D) v. L. Bakthavatsalam (D), 2020 SCC OnLine SC 584 , decided on 17.07.2020]

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