Supreme Court: In a half a century old case relating to a Will, the bench of Sanjay Kishan Kaul* and MM Sundresh, JJ has held that the objective of Section 14(1) of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 is to create an absolute interest in case of a limited interest of the wife where such limited estate owes its origin to law as it stood then. The objective cannot be that a Hindu male who owned self-acquired property is unable to execute a Will giving a limited estate to a wife if all other aspects including maintenance are taken care of.
“If we were to hold so it would imply that if the wife is disinherited under the Will it would be sustainable but if a limited estate is given it would mature into an absolute interest irrespective of the intent of the testator.”
The case relates to the testamentary disposition by a Will dated 15.4.1968 by one Tulsi Ram, who passed away on 17.11.1969.
The Will aforesaid bequeathed the testator’s estate to his son, the appellant herein, and his second wife Ram Devi (the first wife being deceased whose progeny is the appellant). Land measuring 175 kanals and 9 marla, a residential house and a Bara was bequeathed half and half to the appellant and Ram Devi.
However, the nature of bequeath was different for the two. The appellant was given absolute ownership rights to the extent of his share of land and property whereas Ram Devi was given a limited ownership for her enjoyment during her lifetime with respect to her share of the land with a specific provision that she could not alienate, transfer or create third party rights over the same. Thereafter the property was to vest absolutely in the appellant after her lifetime.
Ram Devi, However, entered into sale deed for her share of the property. This was challenged by the appellant as he claimed that Ram Devi only had a limited right in the share.
Analysis of the Provision
Sub-Section (1) of Section 14 of the said Act makes it clear that it applies to properties acquired before or after the commencement of the said Act. Any property so possessed was to be held by her as full owner thereof and not as a limited owner.
The Explanation to sub-Section (1) of Section 14 of the said Act defines the meaning of “property” in this sub-section to include both movable and immovable property acquired by the female Hindu by inheritance or devise or a partition, or in lieu of maintenance or arrears of maintenance, or by gift from any person, or by her skill or exertion, or by purchase or by prescription or in any other manner whatsoever, including stridhana.
Sub-Section (2) of Section 14 of the said Act is in the nature of a proviso. It begins with a ‘non-obstante clause’. Thus, it says that “nothing contained in sub-section (1) shall apply to any property acquired by way of gift or under a will or any other instrument or under a decree or order of a civil court….” etc. where a restricted estate in such property is prescribed.
The objective of sub-Section (2) is that there cannot be a fetter in a owner of a property to give a limited estate if he so chooses to do including to his wife but of course if the limited estate is to the wife for her maintenance that would mature in an absolute estate under Section 14(1) of the said Act
Further, the word “possessed” was held to be used in a wide sense not requiring a Hindu woman to be an actual or physical possession of the property and it would suffice if she has a right in the property. The intention of the Parliament was to confine sub-section (2) of Section 14 of the said Act only to two transactions, viz., a gift and a will, which clearly would not include property received by a Hindu female in lieu of maintenance or at a partition. The intention of the Parliament in adding the other categories to sub-section (2) was merely to ensure that any transaction under which a Hindu female gets a new or independent title under any of the modes mentioned in Section 14(2) of the said Act.
The Court observed that the objective of Section 14(1) is to create an absolute interest in case of a limited interest of the wife where such limited estate owes its origin to law as it stood then. The objective cannot be that a Hindu male who owned self-acquired property is unable to execute a Will giving a limited estate to a wife if all other aspects including maintenance are taken care of. Holding so would imply that if the wife is disinherited under the Will it would be sustainable but if a limited estate is given it would mature into an absolute interest irrespective of the intent of the testator. That cannot be the objective.
Ruling on facts
Taking note of the terms of the Will, the Court observed that the testator was clear in terms that the income derived from the property is what is given to the second wife as maintenance while insofar as the properties are concerned, they are divided half and half with the appellant having an absolute share and the wife having a limited estate which after her lifetime was to convert into an absolute estate of the appellant.
The Court noticed:
- The Will while conferring a limited estate on Ram Devi, Tulsi Ram had clearly stated that she will earn income from the property for her livelihood. The income, thus, generated from the property is what has been given for maintenance and not the property itself.
- The next clarification is that after the lifetime of Ram Devi, the appellant will get the ownership of the remaining half portion also. It is specified that in case Ram Devi pre-deceases Tulsi Ram, then all the properties would go absolutely to the appellant and that the other children will have no interest in the property.
- Tulsi Ram had six children. One son and four daughters are from the first wife and Bimla Devi was the daughter from the second wife. At the stage when the Will was executed one of the daughters was unmarried and the Will also provided that in case for performing the marriage Ram Devi needs money she will have the right to mortgage the property and earn money from the same and will further have the right to gain income even prior to the marriage.
The Court, hence, observed that the testator in the present case had taken all care for the needs of maintenance of his wife by ensuring that the revenue generated from the estate would go to her alone. He, however, wished to give only a limited lift interest to her as the second wife with the son inheriting the complete estate after her lifetime.
Hence, it would be the provisions of Section 14(2) of the said Act which would come into play in such a scenario and Ram Devi only had a life interest in her favour. Therefore, the sale deeds in favour of the respondents cannot be sustained.
[Jogi Ram v. Suresh Kumar, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 127, decided on 01.02.2022]
*Judgment by: Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul
 14. Property of a female Hindu to be her absolute property.— (1) Any property possessed by a female Hindu, whether 9 AIR 2016 SC 1213 10 acquired before or after the commencement of this Act, shall be held by her as full owner thereof and not as a limited owner.
Explanation.—In this sub-section, “property” includes both movable and immovable property acquired by a female Hindu by inheritance or devise, or at a partition, or in lieu of maintenance or arrears of maintenance, or by gift from any person, whether a relative or not, before, at or after her marriage, or by her own skill or exertion, or by purchase or by prescription, or in any other manner whatsoever, and also any such property held by her as stridhana immediately before the commencement of this Act.
(2) Nothing contained in sub-section (1) shall apply to any property acquired by way of gift or under a will or any other instrument or under a decree or order of a civil court or under an award where the terms of the gift, will or other instrument or the decree, order or award prescribe a restricted estate in such property.