The doctrine of spes successionis can be avoided in cases of family arrangements or relinquishment for consideration
Citation: (2011) 9 SCC 223
Date of Judgement: 02/08/2011
The doctrine of spes successionis entails that the mere fact that one is entitled to succeed to a certain share in the property (a future right), does not validate the transfer of that right even before it has materialized.
Meeralava Rawther died intestate in 1986, leaving behind 3 sons and 3 daughters. At the time of his death, he owned 1.7 acres of land in Thodupuzha, Kerala. Being a Mohammedan, his children were entitled to specific shares as tenants in common. The division of property would ideally have been such that each son would receive 2/9th, and each daughter 1/9th.
However, all of Meeralava’s children except for one, Hasan Khani Rawther (the respondent), executed a deed with the father relinquishing their rights over the property in exchange for consideration, as they left the family home.
In 1992, the respondent filed an original suit before a Court of Subordinate Judge seeking a declaration of the property and title in his name alone as he claimed that his father had executed an oral gift in 1982. His siblings later filed suits seeking an injunction against his claim whereas Shehammal (petitioner) filed for a partition of the property. The learned judge of the Trial Court dismissed the respondent’s suit due to the lack of evidence surrounding the oral gift and passed a decree in favour of the petitioner.
The respondent filed an appeal before the High Court of Kerala who set aside the order of the Trial Court and asked for the case to be heard on merits. Upon remand, the Trial Court yet again passed a decree in favour of the petitioner as it was dissatisfied with the gift deed’s story. The respondent hence filed an appeal before a Single Judge Bench of the Kerala High Court whereby it was viewed that though the respondent had failed to prove the oral gift, he would be the sole inheritor as the others had relinquished their rights through deeds.
The present matter before the Supreme Court was a Special Leave Petition filed by Shehammal against the order of the Single Judge of the Kerala High Court dated 18/10/2007.
The counsel for the petitioners held that the impugned order had erred in its understanding of relinquishment among Muslims as it failed to consider spes successionis in Section 54 of Mullla’s principles of Mohammedan law which holds that a Muslim cannot relinquish an expected share in the property. This was based on the principle that Mohammedan law has not recognized the expectancy of inheritance during the lifetime of the owner and that the same would open only after his death. Section 54 by Mulla was said to be in para materia to Section 6(a) of the Transfer of Property Act, 1882 (TPA) which conveys that the chance of a person succeeding to a property cannot be transferred. Thus all the deeds of relinquishment were to be null and void.
The High Court’s decision was found on its interpretation of the Supreme Court decision in Gulam Abbas v. Haji Kayyum Ali, (1973) 1 SCC 1. It was submitted that the execution of a deed per se would not prevent heirs from receiving their share as it would have to look into the surrounding circumstances and the conduct of the parties. They thus contended that the decision was wrongly interpreted. The impugned order had further recognized each deed executed by the children during the time of their respective marriages to constitute a “family arrangement” and the same was contended to be erred as they were distinct deeds. Such an interpretation led to the reliance on the decision in Latafat Husain v. Hidayat Husain, AIR 1936 All 573, which considered binding family agreements to operate as estoppels.
The respondents argued that the Court had to adopt a consistent approach concerning relinquishment and subsequent estoppel, as any view to the contrary would violate Section 23 of the Indian Contracts Act by being opposed to public policy. They submitted that Sections 6 and 54 of the distinct laws were meant to protect a Muslim’s right to succeed to property but made no reference as to its applicability when that right had been waived away for consideration. It was thus contended that the bar on spes successionis was not absolute and entailed certain exceptions.
An essential principle of the Mohammedan law of inheritance is that it does not recognize a transfer of a spes successionis. The Division Bench fundamentally considered the relevant provisions of law as raised by the parties. Section 54 of the Principles of Mohammedan law provides that the transfer of a chance of an heir-apparent succeeding to an estate is not valid. The principle also terms it as the “Renunciation of chance of succession”.
A similar provision lies under Section 6(a) of the Transfer of Property Act, 1882 as it expressly precludes such transfers from the ambit of valid transfers. It was held that Section 6(a) would have to be read in consonance with Section 2 of the Act which provides that none of the clauses given under the Act shall affect any rule of Mohammedan law.
The Court then correlated the notion of relinquishment to the principle of Estoppel as stated in Section 115 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (IEA). Section 115 lists the principle that if anyone causes another to believe something is true, then he shall not deny it at a later stage. This essentially meant a clash between the Doctrine of Estoppel and the Doctrine of Spes successionis while posing the question as to which would prevail. It was recognized that a personal law and a general law made it succinctly clear that a transfer of spes successionis would not be valid whereas the Doctrine of Estoppel under Section 115 of the IEA was to the contrary.
The decision in Gulam Abbas emphasized on the verdict in Khanum Jan v. Jan Beebee, 1827 4 SDA 210, to hold that renunciation implies yielding up of a right already vested. The fundamental principle being, one could not give up a right that had not materialized. Nonetheless, the judgement in Gulam Abbas held that an heir could portray certain conduct that could stop him/her from claiming rights when the property opens up for inheritance. Thus, renunciation of a supposed right based on expectancy in exchange for another agreement couldn’t be barred. The Apex Court in that matter hence penned that the Doctrine of Equitable estoppel was not against the principles of Mohammedan law but rather in harmony with it.
The principle of law was thus inferred to be that spes successionis could be avoided in cases of family arrangements or by accepting consideration in exchange for that future share, thus estopping the petitioner and her other siblings. The Court upheld that the impugned order had been formed on various precedents as well as on principles laid by jurists as it held that despite the application of spes successionis, the parties, in this case, had acted in a manner that estopped them from claiming that benefit.
The SC connected this concept of relinquishment to Section 118 of Mulla’s principles that imposes a limitation on testamentary power. The section bars a Mohammedan from disposing of more than 1/3 of the surplus of his estate after payment of funeral debts and expenses. However, bequests beyond that limit may take place if his heirs consent to the same after his death. This meant that the limit under Section 118 could be surpassed by taking the consent of all the heirs. The Division Bench incorporated this principle as a corollary to the present matter as one permitted relinquishment with consent whereas the other seemingly barred it.
Concerning the question of “family arrangement”, the learned judge concurred to the opinions of the counsel for the petitioner as there were 5 distinct deeds that were individual agreements. To constitute a family arrangement would mean that the decision was arrived at jointly which was not the matter in this case.
Nonetheless, the conduct of the petitioner and her other siblings was such that they had relinquished their rights over the property through their deeds and the Doctrine of Estoppel had stepped into effect to prohibit them from taking an unfair advantage over the right. The Doctrine of Estoppel would prevail over that of spes successionis in this regard as the petitioner's actions had waived her right over the property. The Apex Court dismissed the Special Leave Petitions as the petitioner was estopped from availing the benefit of spes successionis which would otherwise vitiate public policy. Moreover, this dismissed any need to prove the validity of the oral gift deed as the respondent was entitled to succeed to the entire share.