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Ram Piari Vs. Bhagwant & Ors [1990] INSC 79 (6 March 1990)

Sahai, R.M. (J) Sahai, R.M. (J) Shetty, K.J. (J)

CITATION: 1990 AIR 1742 1990 SCR (1) 813 1990 SCC (3) 364 JT 1990 (1) 420 1990 SCALE (1)427

ACT:

Indian Succession-Act, 1925: Testamentary succession--Will-Execution of--Genuineness--Mere production of scribe and attesting witnesses--Not sufficient--Suspi- cious circumstances to be ruled out-Conscience of Courts satisfaction of--Not only on execution--Also on authentici- ty.

Constitution of India, 1950: Article 136--Findings of fact-Erroneous application of principle of law--Miscarriage of justice Interference justified.

HEAD NOTE:

The appellant's father executed a Will, just one day prior to his death, bequeathing all his property in favour of the sons of appellant's only sister. The testator was ill and lived with the beneficiaries six months prior to his death. Though the testator could sign, he put his thumb impression on the Will.

The disinherited daughter challenged the genuineness of the Will on the ground that there were suspicious circum- stances and the propounder took active part in the execution of the Will. The Courts below right up to High Court held that the execution of the Will was beyond doubt.

Aggrieved, she has preferred this appeal, by special leave.

Allowing the appeal, this Court,

HELD: 1.1 Although freedom to bequeath one's own proper- ty amongst Hindus is absolute both in extent and person, including rank stranger, yet to have testamentary capacity or a disposable mind what is required of propounder to establish is that the testator at the time of disposition knew and understood the property he was disposing and per- sons who were to be beneficiaries of his disposition. Pru- dence, however, requires reason for denying benefit to those who too were entitled to bounty of testator as they had similar claims on him. Absence of it may not invalidate a Will but it shrouds the disposition with suspicion as 814 it does not give any inkling to the mind of testator to enable the Court to judge if the disposition was voluntary act. Taking active interest by propounder in execution of Will raises another strong suspicion. Mere execution of Will by producing scribe or attesting witnesses or proving genu- ineness of testator's thumb impressions by themselves was not sufficient to establish validity of Will unless suspi- cious circumstances, usual or special, are ruled out and the Court's conscience is satisfied not only on execution, but its authenticity. [815D-G] H. Venkatachalliah v.N. Themmajamma, AIR 1959 SC 443 and Kalyan Singh v. Smt. Chhoti & Ors., [1989] JT 439, relied on.

1.2 Happy marriage or financially well-settlement of appellant could not add to genuineness of Will. The High Court in recording this finding, completely misdirected itself. More so, when no finding of dire circumstances of respondent to help out of which testator dis-inherited the other daughter, was recorded by any courts. [817A-B]

2. Although this Court does not normally interfere with findings of fact recorded by courts below, but if the find- ing is recorded by erroneous application of principle of law, and is apt to result in miscarriage of justice then this Court will be justified in interfering under Article 136. [817E-F] Malkani v. Jamadar, AIR 1987 SC 767, distinguished.

CIVIL APPELLATE JURISDICTION: Civil Appeal No. 4499 of 1986.

From the Judgment and Order dated 11.8.1986 of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in R.S.A. No. 974 of 1985 and Civil Misc. No. 1034-C of 1985.

Harbans Lal, Dr. Meera Agarwal, (N.P.) and R.C. Mishra for the Appellant.

S.K. Mehta, Aman Vachher and Atul Nanda for the Respond- ents.

The Judgment of the Court was delivered by R.M. SAHAI, J. Disinherited daughter, under a Will alleged to have been executed by her father one day before his death bequea- 815 thing all his property in favour of sons of her only sister, has assailed validity of orders of three courts below for failure to apply the rule that presumption of due execution of a pious and solemn document like Will stood rebutted due to existence of suspicious circumstances which the propound- er could not rule out specially when he had taken active part in its execution.

Soft cornor for grand-children or likeability for a son or daughter or their issues is not uncommon to our society.

Rather at times it becomes necessary either to provide for the lesser fortunate or to avoid the property from passing out of the family. But when disputes arise between heirs of same degree, and the beneficiary even chooses to deny the blood ties, and that too unsuccessfully, then court's re- sponsibility of performing its duties carefully and pains- takingly multiplies. Unfortunately it was not properly comprehended by any of the courts, including the High Court which was swayed more by happy marriage of appellant, a consideration which may have been relevant for testator but wholly irrelevant for courts as their function is to judge not to speculate. Although freedom to bequeath one's own property amongst Hindus is absolute both in extent and person, including rank stranger, yet to have testamentary capacity or a disposing state of mind what is required of propounder to establish is that the testator at time of disposition knew and understood the property he was dispos- ing and persons who were to be beneficiaries of his disposi- tion. Prudence, however, requires reason for denying benefit to those who too were entitled to bounty of testator as they had similar claims on him. Absence of it may not invalidate a Will but it shrouds the disposition with suspicion as it does not give any inkling to the mind of testator to enable the Court to judge if the disposition was voluntary act.

Taking active interest by propounder in execution of Will raises another strong suspicion. In H. Venkatachalliah v. N. Themmajamma, AIR 1959 SC 443 it was held to render the Will infirm unless the propounder cleared the suspicion with clear and satisfactory evidence. Mere execution of Will, thus, by producing scribe or attesting witness or proving genuiness of testator's thumb impressions by themselves was not sufficient to establish validity of Will unless suspi- cious circumstances, usual or special, are ruled out and the courts' conscience is satisfied not only on execution but about its authenticity. See Kalyan Singh v. Smt. Chhoti & Ors., [1989] Judgment Today page 439.

Coming now to facts it has been found by all the three courts below that testator was a migrant from West Pakistan who after migration resided in village Rupena, was ill for sometime and lived with his 816 daughter and her sons who are the beneficiaries six months prior to his death. It was further found that appellant was also one of the daughters. No finding was recorded that she or her sons had any sore or sour relations with testator.

But the most important finding was that even though the testator could sign yet he put his thumb mark on it. It was found to be genuine. The execution was thus held beyond doubt. But it was sufficient to put the courts on alert specially when the professional scribe fetched by benefici- ary's father admitted that when he reached beneficiary's residence where the Will was executed, he found testator covered with a quilt in the afternoon of August with whom he did not talk nor enquire about his health. Unfortunately none of the Courts paid any attention to these probably because they were swayed with due execution even when this Court in Venkatachalliah's case (supra) had held that, proof of signature raises a presumption about knowledge but the existence of suspicious circumstances rebuts it. Importance of these aspects would have become apparent if they had examined the Will which speaks for itself but which was taken for granted. Relevant part of it is extracted below:

"They served me with money and the core of their heart. I am happy with their service. Therefore I make this Will without any pressure or influence that during my life time I shall be owner of all my property both moveable and immovable i.e. land, house etc. After my death my entire property, land, houses, shops, factory, machinery, residential house, resi- dential goods, deposit in Bank or Post office (i.e. whatever is in my name in Punjab or any part of India, it will be in the ownership of and in possession of my grand sons (daugh- ters/sons) Harmesh Singh, Mohan Lal, Sohan Lal son of Gurdev Singh son of Raunaq Singh in equal shares. No body else who may be my near relations or distantly related will have any right in my property".

What strikes immediately is professionalism of the recital.

Grave doubt arises if recital of each and every item which could be visualised, was as a result of professional exper- tise or the old man was so unwell and died on the next day that he could not speak resulting in speculative narration of property depending on imagination what he must have been possessed of. Mention of house, factory, machinery and bank deposit was meaningful. House had already been sold. No evidence was led that he was possessed of another house or that he had any factory or machinery or bank deposits.

Explanation of learned counsel that omission was as the respondent had challenged the very relation- 817 ship of appellant could not remove the suspicion created by the recital that bequest was made not by an independent man after understanding or on his dictation, but was work of a scribe or beneficiary's father who did not take any chance and attempted to rope in every possible property that could have been conceived of. Happy marriage or financially well- settlement of appellant could not add to genuineness of Will. The High Court in recording this finding, completely misdirected itself. More so, when no finding of dire circum- stances of respondent to help out of which testator dis- inherited the other daughter was recorded by any courts.

Ratio in Malkani v. Jamadar, AIR 1987 SC 767 was relied on to dissuade this Court from interfering, both, because the finding that Will was genuine, was a finding of fact and omission to mention reason for dis-inheriting the daughter or taking prominent part by beneficiary by itself was not sufficient to create any doubt about the testamentary capac- ity was because of misunderstanding of the correct import of the decision and the circumstances in which it was rendered.

Property in Malkani's case (supra) was land. Beneficiary was nephew as against marned daughter. Anxiety in village to protect landed property or agricultural holdings from going out of family is well-known. Even though it cannot be said to be hard and fast rule yet when dis-inheritance is amongst heirs of equal degree and no reason for exclusion is dis- closed, then the standard of scrutiny is not the same and if the courts below failed to be alive to it as is clear from their orders then their orders cannot be said to be beyond review. Although this Court does not normally interfere with findings of fact recorded by courts below, but if the find- ing is recorded by erroneous application of principle of law, and is apt to result in miscarriage of justice then this Court will be justified in interfering under Article 136.

For the reasons stated above, the appeal succeeds and is allowed. The order and judgment of all the three courts below, are set aside and the suit filed by the appellant for declaration that the Will executed by her father was in- valid, shall stand decreed. The appellant shall be entitled to its costs.

G.N. Appeal al- lowed.

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