Live-in Relationships — Legal or Illegal in India?

By:- Tanvi Chopra

Introduction

An arrangement where two unmarried people live together as a couple, such an arrangement or relationship shared between them is generally termed as a live-in relationship. The people are usually involved in a romantic or sexually intimate relationship for a long time or on a permanent basis. This concept of live-in relationships is becoming quite common in many western countries. In India, this arrangement has become common in the metropolitan cities majorly because, in some developing countries, people are still unaccepting this arrangement.

Some people who wish to stay in a live-in relationship are harassed by society and have to face a lot of criticism by the society and sometimes, even their families. Even in the 21st century where western culture is being adopted in our country as well, people are widening their mindset and approach, there still exists some areas or some families in the country which see live-in relationships as a social taboo. As the times have changed, live-in relationships have attained the status of being legal and lawful in India.

Legal Status of Live-In Relationships

For a very long time, live-in relationships have been considered unacceptable and perceived unlawful by the society. Although, there is no law directly relating to the concept of live-in relationships and the term is also not mentioned anywhere in law but the Indian judiciary has discussed its status in many judgements delivered by them. Through the judgements, various definitions have been given for live-in relationships.

In one of the cases, the apex court stated that if a man and a woman live like a husband and a wife and have children, they would be treated as a married couple under the eyes of the law and the same laws would apply to them. In another case, the hon’ble court also stated that two people falling in love and living together is normal and acceptable and is not a criminal offence, therefore, live-in relationships are legal in India.

Domestic Violence, also commonly termed as domestic abuse is a concept of abusing or harassing in a domestic arrangement, such as a marriage or cohabitation. It is the abuse that one of the partners in an intimate relationship goes through because of the acts of the other partner. It includes both physical and mental violence. This concept is applicable to both heterosexual couples, or same-sex couples. Section 2(f) of the Domestic Violence Act, which defines a domestic relationship has now extended its ambit and included live-in relationships within its definition.

‘Relationships in the nature of marriage’ signifies that the marriages which are invalid in the eyes of law, still have the option to live together as a couple. It is not mandatory that two people living together as a couple have to be in legal wedlock. In one of the recent cases of Kerala, where a 19-year-old girl wanted and a boy under the age of 21 wanted to live together in a live-in relationship and the father of the daughter objected that they cannot live together as they have not married yet. The courts said that the girl has attained the age of majority and can get married and she can decide for herself with whom does she want to reside. She can live with the boy in a live-in relationship as these relationships are now valid under the Domestic Violence Act.

The concept of live-in relationships was evolved and accepted by the Indian Judiciary with respect to the following landmark judgments which gave them legal status to this arrangement:

  • Badri Prasad v. Dy Director of Consolidation (1978)[1]

It was the first time in this case that the Supreme Court dealt with the legal status of live-in relationships. Here, legal validity was given to a live-in relationship of 50 years and the court said that a strong presumption arises in favour of the couple when they have lived together for so long as husband and wife.

  • Tulsa & Ors. v. Dhurghatiya & Ors. (2008)[2]

This was the landmark judgement where the court granted legal status to a child born out of a live-in relationship. The court said that the couple should follow the condition that the parents should have co-habited for a considerably long period of time so that society perceives them as a married couple. A child born out of such a relationship would be a legitimate child and would have the same property rights that are granted to a child born out of a married couple.

  • S. Khushboo vs. Kanniammal & Anr. (2010)[3]

In this landmark Judgment, the hon’ble apex court stated that a live-in relationship comes under the Right to life as provided by Article 21 of our Indian Constitution. The court further stated that it is not an offence to fall in love and live together with your partner. Even though it is considered unlawful or unacceptable in the eyes of society, it is not illegal and couples who wish to live separately before marriage, can do so and protected by the law.

  • Indra Sarma v. V.K.V. Sarma (2013)[4]

A two bench of the Supreme Court held in this case that if a woman is aware of the fact that the man with whom she is in a live-in relationship already has a legally wedded wife and children, then that woman would not be provided remedies or reliefs which are provided to a legally wedded wife. Relief will also not be provided to someone who entered into a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ as per the provisions of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, 2005.

The court stated that in this case, the status of the woman was very less than that of a wife as if we would give their relationship status validity, it would be unlawful and unfair to the legally wedded wife of the respondent i.e., the man in this instant case. Such matters are not dealt with in the Domestic Violence Act and a provision for the same should be added so as to provide a solution to such relationships as well.

  • Dhannulal v. Ganeshram (2015)[5]

In this case, the Supreme Court finally ruled that two people in a live-in relationship would be presumed to be legally married and would be treated as a married couple.

Looking at the different views of the hon’ble apex court in various cases, it is evident that live-in relationships have been given the status of legally valid, and whatsoever may the society thinks of it, it is an arrangement supported by the law and valid in India. After Section 377 was struck down and was declared unconstitutional, same-sex couples are given recognition and are allowed to have an intimate relationship that is consensual.

Since marriages are governed by various personal laws in India, there exists no personal law which provides for the marriage of a same-sex couple. It has also been stated that the right of marriage to same-sex couples can be provided by the legislature itself if they make changes to the personal laws and incorporate this concept within the statutes. On the other hand, an intimate relationship between same-sex couples and LGBTQ people are now legalised in India, which includes that they can also cohabit in a live-in relationship. A similar view was held by Justice Sharad Kumar Sharma (Uttarakhand HC) in June 2020 where he stated that same-sex couples cannot marry but are allowed by law to live together.

Apart from the recognition and status provided to couples in a live-in relationship, another issue being raised is whether the couples in a live-in relationship are entitled to property rights or not. It has been made very clear by the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005 that a daughter, whether married or unmarried or in a live-in relationship shall have a right to parental property. The question arose that whether a woman will have a right to her partner’s property if they are in a live-in relationship.

There is no specific statute that provides property rights to a couple in a live-in relationship but in the case of Vidyadhari & Ors. v. Sukhrana Bai & Ors.[6], the learned counsel stated a woman living in a live-in relationship as a wife would have an inheritance in the partner’s property. The Supreme Court has also held that since the child born out of a live-in relationship is legitimate, the parents have a duty to maintain their child. Therefore, the woman would also have a right to have an entitlement in the property in the capacity of the mother of the child.

Conclusion

Providing a valid legal status to the concept of live-in relationships is one of those things which shows how Indian society is evolving. It is true that not all areas of the country have become aware and changed their mindsets in accepting this arrangement, but by making it a legal practice and allowing the couples to follow such an arrangement makes it evident that the Indian perception as a whole is evolving and is accepting changes. Even the statutes have also recognised the concept and have incorporated the arrangement within the domestic violence act.

In the author’s opinion, nobody can decide whether this arrangement is good or bad, favourable or unfavourable. It depends on persons to persons and couples to couples decide whether this arrangement is helpful for their relationship or not. There is a different understanding of every couple and some feel that they wish to stay together before getting married and some wish to stay together only after getting married, so it should only be the couple’s decision to decide whether this arrangement would be good for them or not. Many couples wish to move out and live together but are harassed by society and even their own families sometimes, which is something that needs to change. People should be open to the idea of living with one’s partner separately.


Author Tanvi Chopra is a second-year law student from Bennett University, Greater Noida. She believes that such socio-legal issues should be handled with utmost care and caution as they are very delicate matters.


[1] Badri Prasad V. Dy. Director Of Consolidation & Ors [1978] Insc 119; Air 1978 Sc 1557.

[2] Tulsa vDurghatiya (2008) 4 SCC 520.

[3] S. Khushboo vs. Kanniammal & Anr. (2010) 5 SCC 600.

[4] Indra Sarma v. V.K.V. Sarma 2013 15 SCC 755.

[5] Dhannulal v. Ganeshram 2015 12 SCC 301.

[6] Vidyadhari & Ors. v. Sukhrana Bai & Ors. AIR 2008 SC 1420