Meena Pradhan and Others v. Kamla Pradhan and Others
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CourtSupreme Court of India
BenchAbhay S. Oka, Sanjay Karol
Citation2023INSC847
Date of Judgement21 September, 2023
Petitioner/AppellantMeena Pradhan & Ors
RespondentKamla Pradhan & Anr
Constitution Involved
Important Articles Involved
Related ProvisionsSection 63, Indian Succession Act 1925
Section 68, Indian Evidence Act 1872

Abstract

This case involves the validity of a will executed by Bahadur Pradhan in favor of his second wife Kamla Pradhan and daughter Ritu. After Bahadur’s death, his first wife Meena Pradhan challenged the will’s validity. The Supreme Court examined whether there were sufficient grounds to interfere with the concurrent findings of the lower courts upholding the will’s validity. It discussed the requirements under the Indian Succession Act 1925 for valid will execution, including signing by the testator, attestation by two witnesses, and testamentary capacity. Relying on testimony of one attesting witness who stated that Bahadur had executed the will in his presence, the Supreme Court found statutory compliance. It held the will was duly executed by Bahadur out of his own free will, with a sound disposing mind, without any suspicious circumstances or undue influence. Allegations regarding Bahadur’s mental state were unsubstantiated. Dismissing the appeal, the Court upheld the will’s validity as proven under settled legal principles. It refrained from examining the allegation of bigamy, limiting review to the will’s validity. This abstract summarizes the Court’s reasoning and conclusion in affirming the will based on evidence meeting statutory requirements.

INTRODUCTION

This case involves an appeal filed before the Supreme Court challenging a High Court judgment that upheld the validity of a will executed by one Bahadur Pradhan. Bahadur had two wives – Meena Pradhan and Kamla Pradhan. He executed a will seven days before his death bequeathing property to Kamla and their daughter Ritu. After Bahadur’s death, Meena challenged the will’s validity and sought succession certificate in her favor. The executing court initially granted a certificate to Meena, but the High Court set it aside and directed proceeding under the Indian Succession Act to determine the will’s validity. Kamla initiated probate proceedings. Meena contested the proceedings alleging the will was forged.

The executing court relied on the testimony of one attesting witness to uphold the will’s validity and granted probate in favor of Kamla and Ritu. Meena appealed unsuccessfully before the High Court. The Supreme Court was thus presented with the question whether there were sufficient grounds for interference with the concurrent findings of the two lower courts. The Court discussed the relevant provisions under the Indian Succession Act 1925 and Evidence Act 1872 related to execution and proof of wills. It summarized the principles laid down in its earlier judgments regarding statutory compliance and evidentiary requirements for proving a will’s validity and execution. The Court’s analysis focused on whether the will in question satisfied the legal test of due execution without any suspicious circumstances.

This detailed introduction summarizes the factual background, issues, and legal provisions involved in this case pertaining to the validity of a will. It sets the context for the Supreme Court’s examination of whether there were adequate grounds to overturn the lower courts’ concurrent decisions upholding the will based on statutory and evidentiary requirements.

Facts of the Case

The deceased, Bahadur Pradhan, had married Meena Pradhan, with whom he had two children – Ravi Kumar and Sushma. It was alleged that Bahadur divorced Meena and later solemnized marriage with another woman, Kamla Pradhan, with whom he had a daughter named Ritu.  On 30.07.1992, just seven days prior to his death on 07.08.1992, Bahadur Pradhan executed a Will bequeathing his property and assets in favor of his second wife Kamla Pradhan and their daughter Ritu. The Will was attested by two witnesses, namely Lok Bahadur Thapa (who was not examined later) and Suraj Bahadur Limboo. After the demise of Bahadur, his first wife Meena Pradhan filed a case seeking to receive the outstanding dues of the deceased husband. Consequently, the VI Additional District Judge, Jabalpur granted a Succession Certificate in favor of Meena vide order dated 05.07.1995 in the said proceedings. 

This order of the executing court was challenged by Kamla Pradhan and daughter Ritu before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh. The High Court set aside the order dated 05.07.1995 by its judgment dated 17.11.1995, thereby quashing the entire proceedings regarding issuance of Succession Certificate. The High Court directed that the authenticity and genuineness of the Will left behind by Bahadur Pradhan would have to be adjudicated in appropriate proceedings under the relevant law. Thereafter, Kamla Pradhan, claiming to be the second wife of the deceased Bahadur Pradhan initiated proceedings under Section 276 of the Indian Succession Act, 1925 seeking a Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration on the basis of the Will dated 30.07.1992. In the said proceedings, Meena Pradhan, the first wife, contested the Will and also disputed the marriage of Bahadur with Kamla.

The 6th Additional District Judge, Jabalpur vide judgment dated 11.12.2001 upheld the validity of the Will relied on the deposition of the attesting witness Suraj Bahadur Limboo. It issued Letters of Administration in favor of Kamla Pradhan and daughter Ritu, as mentioned in the Will. Aggrieved by the order, Meena Pradhan filed an appeal before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh. The High Court by its detailed judgment dated 25.03.2010 examined the relevant provisions of the Indian Succession Act, 1925 and Indian Evidence Act, 1872 along with applying the principles laid down in various decisions of the Supreme Court. It concurred with the findings of the executing court and dismissed the appeal, affirming and upholding the validity of the Will executed by Bahadur Pradhan. This propelled Meena Pradhan to approach the Supreme Court by way of present appeal against the High Court order dated 25.03.2010, essentially disputing the concurrent findings of fact by the two courts below.

Issue Raised

  • Whether the Supreme Court could interfere with the concurrent findings of fact by the courts below which had upheld the validity of the will executed by Bahadur Pradhan in favor of his second wife and daughter?
  • Whether the appellate court could overturn the concurring judgments of the executing court and High Court based on the settled legal position regarding requirements for due execution and proof of wills under the Indian Succession Act, 1925?

Arguments on Behalf of the Appellant

  • The learned counsel on behalf of the appellant Meena Pradhan submitted that the will executed by Bahadur Pradhan was forged and invalid.
  • It was argued that the attesting witness examined by the executing court could not conclusively prove the due execution of the will as per the requirements under Section 63 of the Indian Succession Act, 1925. The witness did not depose adequately to show that the testator Bahadur had signed the will in a sound disposing state of mind without any undue influence.
  • It was further submitted that Bahadur was not in a fit mental condition and stable health at the time of execution of the purported will, which should have raised suspicion. The will was executed under suspicious circumstances favoring only the second wife Kamla and depriving the lawful heirs including the appellant and her children.
  • The learned counsel argued that the propounder of the will, Kamla Pradhan did not dispel the suspicious circumstances surrounding its execution by providing a credible explanation, as required by settled law. The courts below erred in not drawing adverse inference based on the suspicious circumstances.
  • Additionally, it was contended that the allegation regarding the second marriage and its validity ought to have been examined by the Court, being a relevant factor for adjudicating on the will’s validity. The appellant questioned the bequest in favor of the second wife when the legality of second marriage itself was doubtful.

Arguments on Behalf of the Respondent

  • The learned counsel on behalf of the respondent, Kamla Pradhan submitted that the execution of the Will dated 30.07.1992 has been duly proved before the executing Court by examining one of the attesting witnesses, as sufficient under law.
  • It was argued that the attesting witness categorically deposed that Bahadur Pradhan had signed the Will in his presence and both of them signed in each other’s presence, thereby fulfilling the requirements for valid attestation under Section 63 of the Indian Succession Act, 1925.
  • The respondent’s counsel contended that there is no evidence on record to show that the testator was not in a fit state of mind or acted under any undue influence. The allegations of suspicious circumstances surrounding the Will made by the appellant are merely conjectures without any basis.
  • It was submitted that the onus was on the appellant to prove fraud, undue influence or fabrication, which she failed to discharge. In the absence of real and germane suspicious circumstances, the Will could not be declared invalid.
  • Furthermore, it was argued that the testator possessed the requisite testamentary capacity and Soundness of mind at the time of executing the impugned Will, which conferred upon him the right to bequeath his self-acquired properties to anyone he desired.
  • Finally, it was submitted that the concurrent findings of fact by the two courts below were based on a detailed assessment of evidence, both oral and documentary. The respondent prayed that the validity of the Will be upheld, being in conformity with the statutory requirements and settled legal position.

Related provisions

Indian Succession Act, 1925

  • Section 63 – This provision lays down the procedure for execution of unprivileged wills. Key requirements are:
    • Testator to sign or affix thumb impression himself or have another person sign in his presence and as per his direction.
    • Signature/mark of testator/other person signing for him should demonstrate intention to give effect to the text as will.
    • Will must be attested by two or more witnesses, each of whom has either seen the testator sign/affix mark or has seen another person sign the will in testator’s presence and as per his direction.
    • Witnesses should have received personal acknowledgment from testator about his signature or that of person signing for him.
    • Each witness must sign the will in testator’s presence, not necessarily at same time. No specific form of attestation is required.
  • Section 276 – This section provides for grant of probate or letters of administration in proceedings initiated by beneficiary/claimant to establish a will’s validity and their entitlement to benefits under it.

Indian Evidence Act, 1872

  • Section 68 – Deals with proof of wills required to be attested. Mandates that an attested will cannot be used as evidence until at least one attesting witness has been examined to prove its execution, if such witness is alive and subject to court’s jurisdiction.

Supreme Court Precedents

The Court relied on previous decisions that laid down following principles:

  • Compliance with Section 63 requirements, though mathematical precision not essential.
    • Testator signed of own free will with sound disposing mind and memory must be proved.
    • At least one attesting witness must be examined, who speaks about testator’s signature and witnesses signing in testator’s presence.
    • If one witness proves will, examining others not required. Where one fails, others can lend assurance.
    • Presence of suspicious circumstances obligates propounder to dispel doubts by credible explanation.
    • Factors creating suspicion must be real, pertinent and reasonable, not imaginary.
    • Burden to prove fraud, coercion etc lies on who alleges it.
    • Test of judicial conscience applied in suspicious cases to examine awareness, volition, testamentary capacity etc.

The Court assessed whether requirements under Section 63 were fulfilled based on witness testimony. It considered principles from precedents regarding volition, capacity, suspicious circumstances and evidentiary standards to determine if the will was validly executed.

Judgements

The Supreme Court examined whether there were adequate grounds for interference with the concurrent findings of fact by the courts below which had upheld the validity of the will executed by Bahadur Pradhan. At the outset, the Court referred to the relevant provisions under the Indian Succession Act, 1925 and Indian Evidence Act, 1872 that prescribe the procedure for execution and proof of wills. It discussed previous judgments that had laid down principles regarding statutory compliance, testamentary capacity, volition, suspicious circumstances and evidentiary standards to be applied for determining the validity of wills.

On analyzing the facts of the present case, the Court found that the will had been duly executed by Bahadur Pradhan in the presence of two attesting witnesses, as deposed by one of them during trial. Based on this testimony, it held that the requirements under Section 63 of the 1925 Act regarding signature of testator and attestation by witnesses had been fulfilled. The Court relied on the precedent in Shivakumar v. Sharanabasappa to reiterate that compliance need not be proved with mathematical precision, but to the satisfaction of a prudent mind. Referring to the principles laid down in Venkatachala Iyengar v. Thimmajamma, the Court stated that the propounder had satisfactorily established that Bahadur signed the will out of his own volition with a sound disposing mind, without any undue influence or suspicious circumstances casting doubts.

The Court dismissed the allegations regarding Bahadur’s unsound mental state as unsubstantiated, with no evidence on record. It endorsed the High Court’s reasoning that in the absence of pertinent suspicious circumstances, the will could not be termed invalid. On the issue of non-examination of the other attesting witness, the Court applied the rule laid down in Janki Narayan Bhoir v. Kadam that evidence of even one attesting witness was sufficient to prove due execution, if found reliable and trustworthy. The Court declined to entertain allegations about the second marriage, limiting review to only the will’s validity, following the approach in Yumnam Ongbi Tampha Ibema Devi v. Yumnam Joykumar Singh.

Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed the concurrent findings of the two courts below by applying the settled legal position on execution, attestation and proof of wills. It held the will to be duly proved based on compliance with statutory requirements and evidentiary standards established through judicial precedents.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and upheld the concurrent findings of the courts below which had affirmed the validity of the will executed by Bahadur Pradhan in favor of his second wife Kamla Pradhan and daughter Ritu. The Court analyzed the relevant provisions under the Indian Succession Act, 1925 and Evidence Act, 1872 pertaining to execution and proof of wills. Applying the principles laid down in its earlier decisions, it held that the propounder had been able to prove due execution as per statutory requirements. The attesting witness examined during trial deposed about the testator signing in his presence and the witnesses signing in the testator’s presence, thereby fulfilling the mandates under Section 63 of the 1925 Act. In the absence of any real suspicious circumstances, the Court found no reason to declare the will as invalid. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the findings of the two courts below that the will had been duly executed by Bahadur Pradhan with testamentary capacity and soundness of mind, out of his own volition, without undue influence. The appeal was dismissed as the appellant could not demonstrate sufficient grounds to overturn the concurrent decisions of the lower courts. In essence, the Court conclusively upheld the will’s validity after analyzing it in light of statutory compliance and principles evolved through precedents. The requirements for due execution and proof having been met, it rightly preserved the sanctity given to a will as the last testament of a testator.