Today I learnt: What does "inherited" mean?

One of the reasons I love working in Dispute Resolution is the myriad chances it gives for in-depth research and analysis. Terms that I glanced over carelessly during my study are the same terms on which the fate of a case hangs.

Just recently, for instance, I came across section 15 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956. This section deals with the General rules of succession in the case of female Hindus. On a brief glance, it seems similar in structure to the provisions detailing the rules of succession for a Hindu male. The section detailed a priority list of succession and further went on to differentiate between property inherited from father/mother; property inherited from husband/father-in-law or self-acquired property. I will produce the provision below for clarity.

15. General rules of succession in the case of female Hindus.—

(1) The property of a female Hindu dying intestate shall devolve according to the rules set out in section 16,—

(a) firstly, upon the sons and daughters (including the children of any predeceased son or daughter) and the husband;
(b) secondly, upon the heirs of the husband;
(c) thirdly, upon the mother and father;
(d) fourthly, upon the heirs of the father; and
(e) lastly, upon the heirs of the mother.
(2) Notwithstanding anything contained in sub-section (1),—

(a) any property inherited by a female Hindu from her father or mother shall devolve, in the absence of any son or daughter of the deceased (including the children of any pre-deceased son or daughter) not upon the other heirs referred to in sub-section (1) in the order specified therein, but upon the heirs of the father; and

(b) any property inherited by a female Hindu from her husband or from her father-in-law shall devolve, in the absence of any son or daughter of the deceased (including the children of any pre-deceased son or daughter) not upon the other heirs referred to in sub-section (1) in the order specified therein, but upon the heirs of the husband.
So the question that arose was whether the term “inherited” in clause (2) of section 15 would be given a narrow or broad meaning. In simpler terms, would a property gifted to you or given to you through a will (you refers to Hindu women only here), come under the purview of  the term “inherited”? As was my nature, I immediately turned to section 3, searching for the definition of “inherited”; only to find that there was none.
Thankfully though, the explanation to Section 14 (1) partially answered the question above. It states:

Explanation.—In this sub-section, “property” includes both movable and immovable property acquired by a female Hindu by inheritance or devise, or at a partition, or in lieu of maintenance or arrears of maintenance, or by gift from any person, whether a relative or not, before, at or after her marriage, or by her own skill or exertion, or by purchase or by prescription, or in any other manner whatsoever, and also any such property held by her as stridhana immediately before the commencement of this Act.

The use of the term inheritance in the explanation, separately and distinctly from devices or other ways of transferring property makes the legislative intent clear – “inherit” should be given a narrow meaning.

This interpretation is supported by the Madras High Court in the case of Avi Ammal v. Subramania Asari & Ors. (AIR 1966 Mad 369). Hon’ble Justice Natesan held that:

To inherit is to receive property as heir, that is succession by descent. In Aiyar’s Law Lexicon the word “inherit” is thus defined:

“To receive property as heir. ‘Inherit’ means, succession by descent. To take by inheritance. To take, or to have; to become possessed of; to take as heir at law by descent or distribution; to descend. The words ‘inherit’ and ‘heir’ in a technical sense, relate to right of succession to the real estate of a person dying intestate”.

In the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, of the several meanings to the word “inherit”, one finds the following: “To take or receive as heir of the former possessor at his decease; to get by legal descent or succession”.

There is nothing in the Act to suggest, as contended for the petitioner, that the word “inherited” has in S. 15(2) been used in a loose way and would include also receipt of property from the father or mother during their lifetime. Far from it, a reference to S. 14 clearly shows that the draftsman has used the word “inherit” with precision having in view the legal significance of the word. In the explanation to S. 14, which gives absolute right to a Hindu female in property possessed by her, one finds “property” thus defined:

“‘Property includes both moveable and immoveable property acquired by a female Hindu by inheritance or device, or at a partition, or in lieu of maintenance or arrears of maintenance or by gift from any person, whether a relative or not, before, at or after her marriage, or by her own skill or exertion, or by purchase or by prescription, or in any other manner whatsoever and also any such property held by her as stridhana immediately before the commencement of this Act”.

Thus, under S. 14 absolute title is given to the female Hindu in property possessed by her subject to the provisions in sub-section (2) of Section 14, in whatever manner the property had been acquired by the female. It is devolution of the property thus acquired that is provided for under S. 15 in a case where a female Hindu dies intestate. The explanation to S. 14 sets out the various modes in which property may be acquired by the Hindu female and S. 15(2) picks out therefrom property acquired by inheritance from certain specified persons for special provision in the matter of devolution on intestacy, when the female died childless. While S. 15(1) as already stated, provides for devolution generally, sub-section (2) makes an exception in regard to the devolution of property acquired by the female Hindu in particular circumstances. I see no reason whatsoever for departing from the common and ordinarily understood meaning of the word “inherited” set out above already.

This view was upheld by the Andhra Pradesh High Court in cases like Babballapati Kameswararao & Ors. v. Kavuri Vesudevarao, AIR 1972 AP 189. Although I did not find a direct decision by the Supreme Court, it did mention the Avi Ammal case beneficially in Dandapani Chettiar v. Balasubramanian Chettiar, (2003) 6 SCC 633.

Even though I had learnt this section earlier, it was only this week that I understood its legislative intent. I guess you learn something new everyday!

Did you guys know about this? Or any other similar law around the world?

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