This article is written by Ansruta Debnath, a student of National Law University Odisha. This article explores the legal relationship shared between stepson and stepmother and analyses the extent to which an Indian stepmother can claim property rights over her stepson’s property.
This article was published by Sneha Mahawar.
Inheritance and property laws in India are very complicated and as a result, are a cause of many legal disputes. The problem mainly arises when a person dies without leaving a proper will. The tussle for property within family members is a common story that almost everyone has heard. Although property rights of certain family members, like a spouse, children, parents, etc. remain quite certain, a reading of the fine print is required for property rights of extended family and various complex relations. This article focuses on one aspect of inheritance; namely that of the stepmother over the property of her stepson. The article starts with a basic understanding of the types of property that can be inherited. Analysis of the relevant laws, mainly Hindu and Muslim, has been done after which follows an enumeration of the ways through which a stepmother can claim rights over a stepson’s property.
Types of property in inheritance
Under Hindu Law, property that is inherited has two main categories– self-acquired property and ancestral property. Self-acquired property is that property that has been acquired by a person with their resources. On the flip side, the ancestral property of a person is something that the person inherited from their ancestors.
Self-acquired property generally becomes ancestral property after some point in time. For example, let us suppose that Person A buys some land. The land is a self-acquired property and passed on to A’s child and so on. Three generations later, his great-grandchild, B, who will inherit A’s land will be said to have inherited their ancestral property. It is important to note that ancestral property remains as it is till it remains undivided.
Now, if B has three children and the land is divided among all three of them, then the chain is broken. As a result, an ancestral property becomes self-acquired from the perspective of the three children.
The concept of the distinction between self-acquired and ancestral property does not exist under Muslim law.
Who is a legal heir
A legal heir is a person who is legally allowed to inherit someone’s property when the latter passes away without leaving a will i.e., the person dies intestate. The definition of legal heir is different for different personal laws. To understand whether a stepmother is a legal heir to their stepson, it becomes important to understand the legal heirs of a male dying intestate.
The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 is the inheritance law for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. Through this Act, the rights of a legal heir have been discussed for the four religious categories. According to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, there are four categories of legal heirs that have been established for a Hindu male. In case, no legal heir in the first two classes can be identified, then the property goes to agnates and then cognates. According to Section 3(a) of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, agnates are relations wholly through males either by adoption or blood. Cognates are relations not wholly through males either by adoption or blood (Section 3(b) of the Act)-
- Son of predeceased son
- Daughter of a predeceased son
- Son of a predeceased daughter
- Daughter of a predeceased daughter
- Widow of a predeceased son
- Son of a predeceased son of a predeceased son
- Daughter of a predeceased son of a predeceased son
- Widow of a predeceased son of a predeceased son
- (1) Son’s daughter’s son, (2) Son’s daughter’s daughter, (3) brother, (4) sister.
- (1) Daughter’s son’s son, (2) daughter’s son’s daughter, (3) daughter’s daughter’s son, (4) daughter’s daughter’s daughter.
- (1) Brother’s son, (2) sister’s son, (3) brother’s daughter, (4) sister’s daughter.
- Father’s father; father’s mother.
- Father’s widow; brother’s widow.
- Father’s brother; father’s sister.
- Mother’s father; mother’s mother.
- Mother’s brother; mother’s sister.
It is important to note that according to Section 9 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, order of succession occurs simultaneously within Class I Heirs. In the case of Class II, those in the first entry in Class II shall be preferred to those in the second entry; those in the second entry shall be preferred to those in the third entry; and so on.
Muslim law is based on the Shariat and has mainly two categories of heirs- sharers and residuaries. Sharers are the people who are entitled to a portion of the deceased’s property, while residuaries are the people who get the portion of the property that is left over after the sharers have received theirs.
Sharers, which is the principal class, include husband/wife, son, daughter, father and mother. The portion of inheritance differs with males getting a larger portion than females. Residuaries include agnates and are the second category of heirs. All legal heirs are blood relations and property can be transferred to non-blood relations only through wills.
The legal relationship between stepmother and her step-children
Currently, no coherent legal relationship exists between step-parents and their step-children. So, just like step-children are not legal heirs of their stepparents, similarly, stepparents are also not legal heirs of their stepchildren’s property. Moreover, stepparents have no obligation to look after the step-children and vice versa.
In Thoilu v. Krishan Gopal (1983), the Court had observed that there exists “no such relationship between a stepmother and stepson”. To elaborate, the ‘relationship’ that the Court is referring to here is a legal relationship that establishes certain rights concerning property, guardianship etc.
In the case of Kirtikant D. Vadodaria v. State of Gujarat (1996), the Supreme Court had to decide on whether a stepmother could be considered legally equivalent to a ‘natural mother’. The main question was with regards to whether the stepson had any duty to provide maintenance to his stepmother. They answered the first question in the negative but with regards to the main question, said that she might be entitled to claim maintenance in case she is childless, unable to claim maintenance from her husband or is widowed.
Thus, the Court’s approach, while denying stepmothers the right to be equal to biological mothers, also takes cognizance of certain rights in their capacity, despite the absence of proper law of the same.
A significant point to be noted is that in a diverse country like India, customary laws sometimes allow stepmothers to succeed stepsons. An example of that can be found in the old case of Barkhurdar Shah v. Mst. Sat Bharai (1931) where while deciding on a different issue, the Lahore High Court took cognizance of the fact that among tribes of the Jhang district (of Punjab), customary law allowed that a stepmother succeeds to the property of her stepson.
In 2017, in a major development, the Central Adoption Resource Agency released guidelines through which a step-parent could adopt the biological child of their spouse. In this way only, legal relationships can be established between step-parents and their step-children.
Stepmother’s right over deceased stepson’s property : implications
Thus, in Hindu or Muslim law, there is no specific mention of a stepmother’s right over the deceased stepson’s property. However, our previous discussion might give rise to the following implications which might aid in stepmothers’ property rights over stepson.
The easiest way a stepmother can lay a claim over a stepson’s property is when the latter says so in their will. In Hindu law, there is no limit to bequeathing property through wills. If specified, a stepmother can theoretically, gain all the property of their stepson.
Under Muslim law, only one-third of the property can be given away through wills to anyone. The remaining property remains with the legal heirs of the deceased.
A Hindu stepmother can have a right over their stepson when she adopts him through the 2017 guidelines. Section 12 of the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 states that for all purposes, an adopted child will be considered equivalent to a biological child. Thus on adoption, the stepmother becomes the mother of the stepson and hence can claim the latter’s property under Class I of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956.
Adopted children are not considered equal to biological children under Muslim law. But Christian law considers adopted children to have all the rights of a biological child. Also, there is no specific adoption statute for Muslims, Christians, or Parsis. For adopting a child, people of these religions must go to court under the Guardians and Wards Act of 1890.
But, in case the Muslim stepmother can be considered as the legal mother of stepson after adoption, then she will be able to claim property rights of stepson (because the mother is a sharer under Islamic law)
Entry VI of Class II heirs of HSA,1956
In the case of Hindu Law, entry VI of Class II heirs (mentioned above), gives legal property right to the deceased’s father’s widow. So, in case no legal heir has been established in Class I and till entry V of Class II, then the widow of the deceased son’s father gets the property of the deceased son. Since it is not mentioned that the widow needs to be the biological mother of the son, thus the second wife, who will be the stepmother of the deceased son will gain the latter’s property. The criteria given is ‘widow’ and so if the father of the deceased son is alive, then no property right goes to the stepmother.
Although no law or case law specifically mentions the rights of a stepmother over a stepson’s property, the same can be somewhat understood from existing law. Moreover, an idea can be formed from the Supreme Court’s notions of the rights of a stepmother concerning her stepson.
The legal share of stepmother over stepson’s property is extremely limited unless adoption takes place. However, a woman shall have a right over her husband’s share even when she is the second wife, provided the first wife was deceased or divorced (with husband) when the second marriage took place. The second wife, in that case, holds coparcenary rights along with the children of the first wife as well her children.
With personal laws based on religion, a lot of confusion and ambiguities is created. Issues, like the one discussed in this article, all confirm the need for a much more uniform code with clear cut guidelines so that families do not have to unnecessarily suffer while trying to determine who gets the property of the deceased.
- Hindu Succession Act: All About Heir & Law of Property Inheritance in India
- New rules enable step parents to have legal relationship with child
- Categories and Classes of Legal Heirs under the Sunni Muslim Laws
- Let’s Take A Look At The Rights Of Step Mother On The Inherited Ancestral Property!
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