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25 March 2021
In its 22 February 2021 decision in Khushi Ram v Nawal Singh (Civil Appeal 5167/2010), the Supreme Court addressed two important points in relation to family settlements – primarily, whether a married woman's heirs from her father's side can be considered 'family' for the purpose of a family settlement. This judgment follows a line of recent judgments which are pro-women's rights in terms of inheriting and disposing of family property.
Badlu was the original tenure holder of the agricultural land in question. Badlu had two sons, Bali Ram and Sher Singh. In 1953 Sher Singh died issueless, leaving his wife Jagno a widow.
The appellants were descendants of Bali Ram (ie, Jagno's brother in law) (matrimonial nephews).
The respondents were descendants of Jagno's brothers (parental nephews).
After Sher Singh's death, Jagno inherited half of the agricultural property owned by Badlu (Sher Singh's share). Jagno moved to her parental home and did not remarry. She died in 1993.
In 1991 the parental nephews filed a civil suit in the local court in Gurgaon, seeking a decree of declaration that they were the owners in possession of the half share in the agricultural land. Their claim was based on the fact that Jagno, who was entitled to the half share, had settled the land in their favour through an oral family settlement.
As Jagno accepted this claim, the court passed the consent decree in favour of the parental nephews, declaring them to be the owners in possession of the half share in the land (consent decree).
The matrimonial nephews filed another civil suit, requesting a declaration that the consent decree was illegal and invalid. This suit was dismissed, as were the subsequent appeals filed in the district court and the high court.
Aggrieved, the matrimonial nephews challenged the high court's order before the Supreme Court.
The matrimonial nephews based their claim on the following grounds:
With respect to the first ground, the matrimonial nephews' claim was that as the parental nephews belonged to Jagno's paternal family (being her brother's sons), they belonged to a different family and could not have entered into a family arrangement with Jagno.
The Supreme Court observed that in previous judgments, the court had held that the term 'family', for the purpose of a family settlement, has to be understood in a wider sense so as to include not only close relations or legal heirs, but also persons who may have some sort of antecedent title, a semblance of a claim or even a spes successionis. In the present case, the parental nephews were sons of Jagno's brothers.
As per the Hindu Succession Act 1956, the class of persons who can inherit a Hindu female's property includes her father's heirs. If the law recognises their right of inheritance, it cannot be held that they are strangers and not members of the female's family.
Thus, the parental nephews were Jagno's family and were entitled to enter into a family settlement with her.
Section 17 of the Registration Act 1908 provides that certain non-testamentary instruments pertaining to immovable property must be registered, including those which purport or operate to create, declare, assign, limit or extinguish any right, title or interest, whether vested or contingent, in such immovable property.
However, this is subject to an exclusion, being a decree or order of a court other than a decree or order "expressed to be made on a compromise and concerning immovable property other than that which is the subject matter of the suit or proceeding".
Therefore, a decree or order of a court must be registered if it is made on a compromise and comprises immovable property other than that which is the subject matter of the suit or proceeding. No other decrees or orders need be registered.
The court concluded that since the consent decree concerned the immovable property which was the subject matter of the suit, it need not be registered.
On this basis, the Supreme Court dismissed the proceedings.
Although a wife is traditionally and customarily considered part of her husband's family, both this judgment and the recent judgment in Vineeta Sharma v Rakesh Sharma (2020) have been favourable to married women in terms of their legal relationship with their paternal family. In Vineeta Sharma, a married woman's rights to a coparcenery share in her father's Hindu undivided family were reinforced (for further details please see "Supreme Court rules that daughters have equal rights in their father's property"). Now, this judgment has confirmed the rights of a father's heirs to enter into a family settlement with his married daughter.
For further information on this topic please contact Radhika Gaggar or Shaishavi Kadakia at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas by telephone (+91 22 2496 4455) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). The Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas website can be accessed at www.cyrilshroff.com.
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