The Laws governing Inheritance among the Christians in India have been discussed in this article. The Indian Succession Act, 1925 provides for the inheritance laws for all other religions, including Christians.
Law of Inheritance for Christians
Christians have varied laws on succession and familial relations. The rules for succession among the Christians has been codified under the Indian Succession Act, 1925, while on the other hand customary practices also have an influence on the principles of inheritance.
The British Indian Government enacted the Indian Succession Act, 1865 which was to apply in the case of Christians. This Act was later replaced by the Indian Succession Act, 1925 (hereinafter referred to as “ISA”), which currently governs the inheritance in case of Christians. Certain customary practices also influence the principles of inheritance in case of Christians and have also been considered by the courts in India.
All property owned by an individual, irrespective of the mode of acquisition, the) mode of acquisition is treated as the individuals’ self-acquired property and is free to dispose-off the same in any manner during his lifetime. In case the property has not been disposed-off by way of will, then the same shall devolve upon his / her successors and heirs upon his death. Properties or money given by the interstate to a child for his / her advancement in the life would not be considered at the time of distribution of the intestate’s wealth / property.
Descendants & Rules of Inheritance
The laws of inheritance applicable to Christians are same for both genders. The property of a person dying intestate is bequeathed to the spouse of the deceased , or upon those who are kindred of the person deceased. Chapter II of the ISA provides for the order and the concerned rules for the devolution of the estate and the share to be allotted to the heirs. The ISA provides that a widow is not entitled to the property if by a valid contract made before the marriage she has been explicitly excluded from the distributive share of her husband’s estate.
The term ‘lineal descendants’, as described under the ISA, includes children or children’s children and only those born out of a lawful marriage, thereby excluding relations such as daughter’s illegitimate son or a son’s illegitimate daughter or any other illegitimate issue as such illegitimate children are not considered children by the provisions of ISA. If an intestate has left a widow and also lineal descendants, 1/3rd of the estate shall devolve upon the widow and the remaining 2/3rd shall go to the lineal descendants. If the intestate has left behind a widow and does not have any lineal descendants, but has left behind persons who are kindred to him, the property would be divided into halves, one would divulge to the widow of the intestate and the other half would divulge to the kindred. However, in case the intestate has left no kindred, the whole property would be inherited by the widow.
In cases where an intestate has no child, but only has grandchildren and no other remote descendent, the property shall go equally to the all the grandchildren. A husband is not entitled to inherit the property of the divorced wife and in case of judicial separation, the property of the wife would devolve upon her legal heirs as if the husband is already divorced. Also, a daughter-in-law has no right of succession to the estate of her intestate father-in-law. Moreover in case of a Christian daughter, there exist no pre-existing right in the family property and her right generally arises when her parents die intestate.
With regard to the legitimate descendants and legitimate and illegitimate children, the Kerala High Court in the case of Jane Antony, Wife of Antony v. V.M. Siyath, Vellooparambil specifically opined that all illegitimate children, though born out of the wedlock, are children born out to the man and woman who cohabited for some time and are in substance husband and wife for all purposes. Therefore, the court showed no hesitation in declaring the children as legitimate and entitled to succeed to the deceased’s estate.
It is well settled in Christianity that the heirs’ religion is immaterial and the only material fact is that the deceased should have belonged to the Christian religion on the date of death. The rights granted to the biological child are not recognised for the adopted child.
Catholic Priests and Inheritance
The Indian courts in several cases pertaining to inheritance for Catholic Priests have held that the right to inherit a distributive share is not extinguished either by usage or existing personal laws.
The Madras High Court adjudged in a dispute regarding inheritance that the provisions of the ISA relating to Christians are also applicable in the case of inheritance of property of a Priest and is allowed only to the natural heirs of the deceased and not to superiors of the priest.
Catholic Nuns and Inheritance
With regard to the rules for succession in the case of the Catholic Nuns also, there have been different views taken by the Karnataka High Court and the Kerala High Court.
The Karnataka High Court has opined that a nun is entitled to a distributive share in the property of her natural family in case on intestate succession. However, the Kerala High Court has stated that where a nun ceases to have any connection with her natural family after entering the Church, the legal effect is that she is not considered to have a father, a mother or a family and is thus not entitled to a share in the estate of her natural family.
Therefore, the views taken by the two High Courts are diametrically opposed as regards the status of a nun for inheritance.
The principal of Escheat is applicable to the Christian laws of inheritance to effect that in case of absence of any lineal descendants and kindred to the deceased, the property shall devolve upon the Government.