In January 2022, the Apex Court, through its decision in Arunachala Gounder (dead) v. Ponnuswamy’s held that the self-acquired property of a Hindu male dying intestate would devolve by inheritance and not by succession. Further, the daughter shall be entitled to inherit such property, as well as property obtained through the partition of a coparcenary or family property. It was also observed that, in case a woman dies intestate, then the ancestral property devolved on her from her father would be bestowed upon her father’s heirs and the property devolved on her from her husband’s side would be assigned to her husband’s heir in case she dies issueless.
The Court observed that “The basic aim of the legislature in enacting Section 15(2) is to ensure that the inherited property of a female Hindu dying issueless and intestate, goes back to the source.”
The judgment establishes a scheme of succession that is in alignment with the “rule of proximity and the entitlement of the sole surviving daughter” to her father’s separate properties, even as far back as before the enactment of the 1956 Act.
Prior to this deliberation, the Supreme Court on August 11, 2020, also expanded on a Hindu woman’s right to be a joint legal heir and inherit ancestral property on terms equal to male heirs in the case of Vineeta Sharma vs. Rakesh Sharma & Ors.
Different benches of the Supreme Court and various High Courts have taken conflicting views on the issue in the past.
- In Prakash vs. Phulavati (2015), the Supreme Court held that Section 6 is not retrospective in operation and the benefit of the 2005 amendment could be granted only to “living daughters of living coparceners” as on September 9th, 2005 (the date when the amendment came into force).
- In February 2018, the Court ruled that, contrary to the 2015 ruling, 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 Danamma @Suman Surpur vs. Amar (April 2018), the Court reiterated the position taken in 2015.
These clashing views by benches of equal strength led to a reference to a three-Judge Bench in the case. The three-judge bench of Justices Arun Mishra, S. Abdul Nazeer and M. R. Shah passed the verdict in a reference that was made in appeals raising the issue of whether the amendment to the Act granting equal rights to daughters to inherit ancestral property would have retrospective effect. What this means is that whether with the passing of the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, a daughter of a coparcener shall by birth become a coparcener in her own right in the same manner as the son, or if she can be denied her share on the ground that she was born prior to the enactment of the Act on September 9, 2005, and therefore cannot be treated as a coparcener.
The verdict makes it clear that the amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 granting equal rights to daughters to inherit ancestral property would be retrospective. The daughters cannot be deprived of their right to equality conferred upon them by Section 6. Daughters, like sons, have an equal birth right to inherit joint Hindu family property. Since the right to coparcenary of a daughter is by birth, it is not necessary that the father should be alive on September 9, 2005. The Court has thus overruled an earlier 2015 decision.
The Court also stated that the statutory fiction of partition created by the proviso to Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 as originally enacted, did not bring about the actual partition or disruption of the coparcenary. An unregistered partition, or 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 the partition is finally evinced in the same manner as it had been affected by a decree of a court, it may be accepted.
The Court has clearly settled the issue on the effective date of the 2005 amendment, by laying no relevance on the date of birth of the daughter or alternatively, the date of death of the father, whether prior to the 2005 amendment or post. So long as the daughter is alive post 2005, she has an equal right as a son in the coparcenary property. Therefore, it is irrelevant whether her father was alive or not or whether she was married or not on the cutoff date of September 9, 2005.
If a daughter is born before September 9, 2005, she would become a coparcener, in her own right, in the same manner as sons. i.e., with the same rights and liabilities, provided there had been no parting/partition/devolution before December 20, 2004. As long as the property remained coparcenary property and was not partitioned as of the date, a daughter can now claim an interest in the same.
Putting the last nail on male primacy in the division of Hindu ancestral property, the Supreme Court cleared the legal cobwebs to declare that daughters will have inheritance rights equal to those of sons from the properties of fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers right from the codification of the law in 1956. The Bench held that daughters will have equal coparcenary rights in Hindu Undivided Family properties irrespective of whether the father was alive or not on September 9, 2005, asserting that this right under Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 is acquired by birth. Daughters can claim the benefit in the case of Intestate Succession and not Testamentary Succession. However, daughters, while claiming coparcenary rights, would not be able to question the disposal or alienation of ancestral properties by the existing coparceners prior to December 20, 2004.
The provisions contained in the substituted Section 6 of The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 confer status of coparcener on the daughter born before or after amendment in the same manner as son with same rights and liabilities. The court was dealing with an interpretation of Section 6 after it was amended in 2005. The amendment granted equal rights to daughters in ancestral property. The rights can be claimed by the daughter born earlier with effect from September 9, 2005. The judgement widened the rights of daughters. The retrospective application of section 6 was analysed and ruled that the daughters would get the rights from 1956, when the law came into force. However, it would not reopen alienation of the ancestral property earlier through existing coparceners. Only a coparcener has the right to demand the partition of property. A share in a property is adulated by birth or death in a family.
A daughter, living or dead, as on the date of the amendment, shall be entitled to a share in her father’s property. It means that even if the daughter was not alive on the date of the amendment, her children could claim her rightful portion.
The court recognised that just like sons, the amendment also extended the status of the coparcener to a daughter, allowing her to enjoy the same rights as a son. Daughters possess the right of inheritance from birth, so it does not matter whether she is married or not, she will be entitled to an equal share.
While the prospective statute operates from the date of its enactment, conferring new rights, the retrospective statute operates backwards and takes away the impairment of the vested rights acquired under existing laws prior to its coming into force. This amendment operates in the future but by virtue of its retrospective effect, it confers rights on daughters from the time of their birth, even if the birth took place prior to the amendment.
The Court held that coparcenary was the birth right of daughters and it would be discordant to restrict it with the condition that the father must be alive. The goal of gender justice embodied in the Constitution is effectuated and the fundamental right to equality under the Indian Constitution has been upheld in the truest sense and translated into ground reality by substituting the provisions of Section 6 by the 2005 Amendment Act.
Daughters will now be treated at par with sons of coparceners and granted equal coparcenary rights in their father’s property upon birth itself. Daughters shall remain coparcener throughout life, irrespective of whether their father is alive or not. Hence, even their marital status will not affect the rights conferred to them by way of amendment, and hence they shall continue to be part of their father’s HUF post marriage. The door of alienation of their share of property will be opened for daughters without any ambiguity. Daughters can now seek partition of their father’s coparcenary property, claiming their equal share the same as their siblings and other coparceners and they cannot be denied on the basis of an oral family settlement. Upon acquiring a share in a coparcenary property, a female coparcener can bequeath her HUF share under her Will to any beneficiary she chooses and to the exclusion of others.
The law applies to ancestral property and to intestate succession in personal property where succession happens as per law and not through a Will. Suppose a Hindu makes a Will or makes a disposition of property in favour of the son according to The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 and not the daughter, then the daughter will not be able to question the Will and not claim the benefit of the Supreme Court Judgment. But if a Hindu dies intestate without making any disposition of property, then the daughters have the right to claim an equal right of inheritance.
The daughters, while claiming coparcenary rights, would not be able to question the disposal or alienation of ancestral properties by the existing coparceners prior to December 20, 2004. If a daughter is unable to reap any benefit from an ancestral property and enforce her right, and another male co-owner is reaping the benefits, she can enforce her rights by filing a suit following a 2005 amendment supported by a Supreme Court judgement on equal right of inheritance for daughters. Daughters can, however, claim partition of the property prior to the Amendment Act. Apportionment of benefit in the property will be accessible to the daughters distinctly along the other coparceners.
The judgements are landmarks and help in the forward march of women’s rights and the law. Traditionally, Indian business families prefer sons as successors, and daughters are not included in the business as successors. Thus, the latest rulings will have a wider impact on various family settlements and asset divisions, especially in family business. Though the judgments envisage rectifying one of the discriminatory social practices, it would require no less than a behavioural change in the mindset of Indian society to fulfil the goal of gender parity.