“Who wants a daughter? She is only going to make us spend our hard-earned money with no returns in the future.” This has been the mindset of Indian society for as long as we can remember. Surprisingly, the lack of importance of a girl child was only one aspect of this issue. The other facet of this issue was the preference given to the male child. If not feeling ashamed of having a female child, the family would pray to have a son because of the thought that the son would be able to take better care of his old-aged parents and look after the household as well. For as recent as the late 18th century, this mindset was not merely societal, it was also prevalent in the legal domain.
While there has not been much development in the societal domain of the importance given to male heirs, the legal aspect has seen several changes including the inheritance rights to female co-parceners (both daughters and wives), adoption rights, etc. The Doctrine of Relation Back is a combination of both, an increase in the rights of women along with the high importance given to male heirs.
What was the Doctrine of Relation Back?
The Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act was enacted in 1956 to enable the legal supervision of relations between heirs, wives, and husbands and their rights under the law to inherit ancestral property. Before the establishment of this law, a certain tradition, now referred to as the Doctrine of Relation Back, was widely practiced. This doctrine establishes under the Ancient Hindu Law, established that a Hindu widow could adopt a son post the death of her husband. In furtherance, this son was to be legally considered to be adopted on behalf of the deceased husband. For convenience in matters of inheritance, the son was considered to be adopted legally from the date of the husband’s death. As a result, the adopted son became eligible to be considered the deceased’s legal heir, thereby entitling him to all the property that the deceased owned before his death.
The most unusual rule as per this doctrine was that in case the deceased’s property is vested to his brothers or other co-parceners, according to the doctrine of relation back such property and be divested by the adopted son. For this purpose, the adopted son was considered to be the deceased’s, posthumous son. The principle of considering the adopted son of a deceased man as his posthumous son was held in the case of Shrinivas Krishnarao Kango v. Narayan Devji Kango, (1955) 1 SCR 1. To elaborate on the Doctrine, let us consider the following instance:-
- H, a married man who died in the year 1935.
- X, the widow of H, has limited interest in the property of the deceased but no right of inheritance. Thus, H’s property is distributed amongst his 2 brothers, B1 and B2 as per the Rule of Survivorship.
- However, X adopts a son, S in the year 1949.
As per the Doctrine of Relation Back, S is considered to have been adopted in 1935 thereby becoming the natural heir of H. Therefore, as per the doctrine, the gap of 14 years (duration between H’s death and S’s adoption) is filled thereby allowing S to divest H’s property from B1 and B2’s possession. It must also be noted that the age of the adopted child does not matter. The doctrine would apply even if the adopted son was born after the death of the husband.
The primary advantage of adoption in Indian society follows from the belief of the Son is the only “eligible heir” to the family. A male child, as per traditional Hindu Law, was considered vital for the furtherance of the family and succession of property as the heir of the family. As per this tradition, couples who did not have children at all or had only daughters showed interest in adopting Sons thereby giving rise to the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956.
Developments in Hindu Succession Laws
However, through several judicial advances and the development of the concept of equality in India, the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956 discontinued the practice of relation back. Sections 12(b) and 12(c) of the Act repealed the practice stating that it violates the rule that a property cannot be divested once it has been vested in someone’s possession.
Furthermore, Section 13 of the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956 is also considered one of the most important provisions of the Act. This provision states that the adoptive parents retain their right to dispose of property to their heirs as per their will and inter vivos as well. They don’t need to dispose of the property to their adopted son alone. This provision is opposed to the reasoning used in the judgement of Nivrutti v. Sakhubai (AIR 2009 Bom. 93).
In the above-mentioned case, the only male member of a family had died leaving behind only his wife and his daughters. The widow adopts a son following the death of her husband. In this case, the Court held that the adopted son was entitled to inherit all the property of the deceased father. It further stated that the son inherits such property despite the presence of other co-parceners, i.e., the wife and the daughters of the deceased. In conclusion, the Court held that the Doctrine of Relation Back would hold true in the concerned case.
The conflict within the Judiciary regarding the Doctrine of Relation Back can be analyzed through the case of Punithavalli Ammal v. Minor Ramalingam(AIR 1970 SC 1730). In this case, a Hindu man died leaving a widow and daughters when the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 came into force. The deceased’s widow had adopted a son after the enactment of the Hindu Successions Act, 1956. She further passed on a property that she had inherited from her husband to her daughter post-adoption. This was challenged by her adopted son on the ground of the Doctrine of Relation Back. While this doctrine was dismissed in the trial court, it was upheld in the High Court of Madras. However, when this case was appealed against in the Supreme Court of India, the judgement of the High Court was overruled thereby re-instating the judgement passed by the trial court in the matter. Thus, the Supreme Court set aside the order of the High Court stating the inheritance rights given to women under Section 14(1) of the Hindu Successions Act, 1956.
After looking at the various judgements passed by the various courts in the matter of the Doctrine of Relation Back under Hindu Law, it can be concluded that despite the theoretical changes in the letter of the law, there have been negligent amounts of execution of the same. As a result of this, we can see that the Courts have been adjudging in favour of the doctrine even in the 21st century. While there have been a few cases that take into consideration Section 12(c) of the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956, it must be noted that the majority of the cases lead to the upholding of the doctrine. In order to help women gain their right to succession in the true sense of the term, the Judiciary must focus on executing the abrogation of the Doctrine of Relation Back in a more serious sense.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is inter vivos?
‘Inter vivos is a Latin expression that means “between the living” or “while alive.” This phrase is which largely applies in property law. It states the different legal actions that an individual can conduct throughout the period of his/her life. These actions include making gifts, establishing trusts, transferring property, etc.
What is the meaning of co-parceners?
‘Co-parceners’ refers to all the individuals in a deceased’s family who are eligible to inherit the property previously owned by the deceased. If there is a single inheritor, he/she is referred to as the parcener. However, if there is more than one inheritor, they are collectively referred to as co-parceners.
Can the property of the deceased be inherited by his wife despite having an adopted son?
The wife of the deceased can inherit her husband’s property in case there is no child. However, under the Doctrine of Relation Back, if the wife adopts a son, the property belongs to him alone. Moreover, even if the deceased had female children before his death, the daughters and the wife will not be entitled to his property if the wife adopts a son.
What is the Rule of Survivorship?
Under Hindu Law, the Rule of Survivorship states that every tenant has an undivided interest in the entire estate. When one tenant passes away, that tenant’s interest in the property is lost, and the shares of the remaining tenants rise proportionately and become entitled to the entire estate.
When this is applied in addition to the Doctrine of Relation Back, it can be inferred that the father and the adopted son were seen as joint owners of the property. Therefore, the son became the natural heir to the property of his adoptive father.