Author: Juhi Srivastava.
(2008) 2 SCC 238
NAMES OF PARTIES
Petitioner: Vidyadhari & Ors.;
Respondent: Sukhrana Bai & Ors.
Justice S.B. Sinha;
Justice V.S. Sirpukar.
Marriage is an important social institution, especially in India. Its’ sanctity has been time and again acknowledged not only by the courts but also by the general public. That said, live-in relationships, a by-product of increased interaction with the west, are slowly gaining acceptance with certain sections of the society. The Supreme Court of India (hereinafter referred to as ‘SC’) in one case1 opined that ‘while there can be no doubt in India (that) marriage is an important social institution, we must also keep our minds open to the fact that there are certain individuals or groups who do not hold the same view.’
Over the years, the Indian judicial system has aided partners in live relationships in acquiring a host of rights, like protection under the domestic violence laws2, the right to claim maintenance under the Code of Criminal Procedure 19733 and many more, which were earlier available only to legally wedded spouses. However, there is still a degree of jurisprudential ambiguity when it comes to the property rights of such partners and the children borne out of such a union.
In the case of Vidyadhari v. Sukhrana Bai4, the SC examines the right of a live-in partner versus a legally wedded spouse, to claim a succession certificate and the benefits accrued upon the death of the man. It also considered the question of the legitimacy of the children borne from the live-in relationship and whether they could qualify as legal heirs of the deceased man.
- Sheetaldeen (hereinafter referred to as ‘Deceased’) was a CCM Helper in the Western Coalfields at Pathakheda. He died in service on May 9, 1993.
- In his lifetime, the Deceased was married to Sukharana Bai. During the subsistence of his marriage to the latter, he also got married to Vidyadhari, with whom he lived for twenty to twenty five years.
- Vidyadhari bore four children (namely, Savitri, Naresh alias Ramesh, Chanda alias Durga and Baliram, hereinafter referred to as ‘Vidyadhari’s children’.) Sukharana Bai had no issues of her own.
- The Deceased had registered Vidyadhari as his nominee under Form A to receive amounts under Provident Funds, Coal Mines Deposit Life Scheme and Family Pension Scheme. Further, in this form, the Deceased described Vidyadhari as his wife, Naresh alias Ramesh as his son, and Chanda alias Durga as his daughter. Upon his death, Vidyadhari also received a gratuity amount from the Deceased’s employer, Western Coalfields Limited.
- Post the death of the Deceased, both Vidyadhari and Sukharana Bai, each claiming to be the widow of the Deceased, filed separate claims to obtain a succession certificate with respect to the movable properties of the Deceased. In her application before the trial court, Vidyadhari also disclosed the names of her children as the legal heirs of the Deceased.
- The trial court joined the two cases and tried them together. It allowed the application in favour of Vidyadhari and dismissed the one filed by Sukharana Bai. Subsequently, the latter filed an appeal before the Madhya Pradesh High Court (hereinafter referred to as ‘MP High Court’) challenging the decision of the trial court. The MP High Court allowed the issuance of a succession certificate in favour of Sukhrana Bai, by recognizing her as the legal widow of the Deceased.
- An appeal was filed before the SC against the decision of the MP High Court. The appeal was allowed, and the succession certificate was granted to Vidyadhari as the nominee of the Deceased, with Sukharana Bai being entitled to one-fifth share in the Deceased’s’ properties.
- Whether the legal widow of the Deceased is Sukharana Bai or Vidyadhari?
- Whether the children borne to Vidyadhari are sired by the Deceased?
- Who are the legal heirs of the Deceased?
- In whose favour should the succession certificate be issued, for receiving the amount due to the Deceased?
The SC firstly considered the question whether the legal widow of the Deceased was Sukharana Bai or Vidyadhari. SC relied on both oral and documentary evidence given by the parties at the trial court. The trial court in its proceeding held that Vidyadhari was the legal widow of the Deceased. It observed that since the Deceased, who had resided with Vidyadhari for nearly two and a half decades till his death, never cohabited with Sukharana Bai in this interim, he would be considered divorced under customary Hindu Laws applicable to the Shudra community. Hence, Suhkarana Bai’s application was dismissed. The MP High Court, on appeal, rejected the customary divorce theory. It held that there was neither existence of any divorce between the Deceased and Sukharana Bai nor was such a custom in existence. Thus, Sukharana Bai, being the legally wedded wife, would be the legal widow. The SC agreed with the MP High Court’s reasoning behind the rejection of the customary divorce theory. It opined that Sukharana Bai was the legally wedded wife of the Deceased, and Vidyadhari could not claim the same status.
The next question considered by the SC was whether Vidyadhari’s children were fathered by the Deceased. Vidyadhari in her application claimed her children to be the legal heirs of the Deceased. SC accepted the legitimacy of Vidyadhari’s children and relied on its decision given in the Rameshwari Devi case5, holding that the children will be legitimate even if the second marriage is void. further accepted the children to be the Deceased’s legal heirs.
When determining in whose name the succession certificate shall be issued, SC held that the MP High Court’s decision of granting a succession certificate to Sukharana Bai to the exclusion of Vidyadhari and her children was myopic. It opined that the MP High Court should have considered the fact that while Vidyadhari was not the legal widow of the Deceased, she was named as his nominee. Thus, being the Deceased’s nominee, Vidyadhari could file an application for and be granted the same. Further, SC observed that while Vidyadhari could not be considered as the Deceased’s legal heir, she would still be preferred over Sukharana Bai, since she stayed with the Deceased as his wife and confidant until his death. Sukharana Bai’s legally wedded status was not enough for her to lay sole claim to the succession certificate.
Ultimately, the SC granted a succession certificate to Vidyadhari, as the Deceased’s nominee and the mother of his children. In the interest of equity, SC allowed Sukharana Bai to claim one-fifth of the Deceased’s estate, to be held in trust and eventually paid by Vidyadhari to Sukharana Bai.
Property rights of partners in live-in relationships have been a bone of contention for many years, a problem exacerbated by the absence of precedent. Thus far, the Indian courts have always considered such rights on a case to case basis, relying chiefly on the facts and circumstances.
In the Vidyadhari case6, SC recognized the right of a live-in partner to claim a succession certificate, vis-à-vis the first wife. However, the esteemed court observed that though Vidyadhari was a long-time partner and nominee of the Deceased, she was not a legal heir, and thus unentitled, to inherit the property of the Deceased. It was expressly mum about her inheritance rights and status as a live-in partner but opined that as a nominee she could file a separate application under section 327 of the Indian Succession Act 1956.
This case goes a long way in laying the necessary groundwork in recognizing the rights of a long term live-in partner. In another case7, SC allowed a long time live-in partner to inherit the property of her deceased partner, against the opposing claims of his family. It observed that partners who have cohabitated for a long term shall be presumed to be legally wedded. However, a quandary arises when the spouse of a partner is alive. In most cases, courts still prefer them over live-in partners. This can also be seen in the Vidyadhari case8, when the MP High Court allowed the legally wedded wife, Sukharana Bai, to file for a succession certificate, despite not having cohabitated with the Deceased for near about two decades. Though this view was reversed by the SC, the point still remains.
The children of the Deceased, borne from his live-in relationship with Vidyadhari, were recognized as the undisputed legal heirs of the Deceased and given inheritance rights in the estate of the Deceased. This decision of the SC is an echo of its previous such decisions9 where issues from such relationships were considered legitimate[ Section 16 of the Hindu Marriage Act 1955] and eligible to lay claim to their deceased parents’ estate.
Courtesy of judicial pronouncements, partners in live-in relationships have obtained a degree of legitimacy and access to important rights vis-à-vis their partners. It cannot be denied, however, that cases involving live-in relationships are nuanced and require consideration of several societal and other factors.
In the Vidyadhari Judgement, though the SC recognises Vidyadhari’s children as the Deceased’s legal heirs and their inheritance rights, the same recognition is not accorded to Vidyadhari. Her standing as the Deceased’s long-time partner still remains meaningless, especially when compared with the inheritance rights given to Sukharana Bai, a spouse only on paper. This judgement leaves many questions unanswered, specifically those dealing with intestate inheritance by live-in partners. It is true that the property rights of live-in partners cannot be contained in an airtight box, however, there is still a need for general judicial guidelines, to give direction to lower courts and to ensure overall equity. Legislative changes, though necessary, may not be feasible in the near future as they are still heavily entwined with societal philosophies and norms.
Thus, broadly speaking, more debates and larger thinking are required before any changes can be introduced in this arena.
- Khusboo vs. Kanniammal (2010) 5 SCC 600[↩]
- Section 2 (a) of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005[↩]
- Section 125 of the Civil Procedural Code, 1973[↩]
- Vidyadhari v. Sukhrana Bai (2008) 2 SCC 238[↩]
- Rameshwari Devi vs. State of Bihar (2000) 2 SCC 431[↩]
- (2008) 2 SCC 238[↩]
- Dhannulal v. Ganeshram (2015) 12 SCC 301[↩]
- Supra note 6[↩]
- SPS Bala Subramanyam vs. Sruttayan AIR (1994) SC 133; Bharata Matha and others vs. Vijaya Renganthan and others AIR (2010) SC 2658; Savitaben Somabhai Bhatiya vs. State of Gujarat (2005) 3 SCC 636.[↩]
Leave a Reply