In a judgment delivered last month, the Delhi High Court held that the eldest daughter of the family can be the ‘karta’ of the Hindu Undivided Family property. Who is a karta, who does this verdict apply to? Aneesha Mathur explains
Who is a karta?
A karta under the Hindu Succession Act is the eldest among the coparceners — that is, the persons entitled to inherit a share in the property of a Hindu Undivided Family by virtue of having been born into the family. The karta has the right to manage the property and business of the HUF. The karta can take decisions as the “head of the family” to sell/rent/buy property and can also decide how to spend the income generated from the HUF property. The karta can take decisions about the expenditure and alienation of property even without the consent of the rest of the family, and can enter into contracts, compromises and take loans on behalf of the family. However, this can be done only for the “good of the family”.
What is the Hindu Undivided Family? Is this the same as ‘joint family’?
No. The concept of HUF exists purely for purposes of revenue assessment, as it concerns the ancestral property held by the coparceners. An undivided family is one where the property hasn’t been partitioned among the sons and daughters. Daughters-in-law and sons-in-law are not part of the HUF, though they are part of the ‘joint family’. That’s where the HUF is different from the ‘joint family’. The concept of HUF comes under the Hindu Succession Act and applies to all Hindu families. It also applies to Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains, and to any person in India who is not Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion. Members of Scheduled Tribes are exempted from the law.
What does the law say about inheritance?
Under the Hindu Succession Act, all persons born into the family have the right to the HUF property or “ancestral property”. The original Act passed in 1956 had included only the male members as coparceners and had said that when a male member of a family dies, the share in the family property would go to the surviving male members of the family while his daughters and wife would get part of his personal share. In 2005, an amendment to the Act gave equal rights to the daughters in the family, making daughters a “coparcener” in the HUF with the same rights and liabilities as a son. After 2005, daughters have the right to demand a partition of the ancestral family property and get equal share of the property as the son.
What led to this judgment on karta?
The ruling came on a suit filed by Sujata Sharma, the eldest daughter of a Delhi business family who took on Manu Gupta, her younger male cousin who had declared himself the karta. Sujata’s father had three brothers. When all four brothers passed away, Manu, the eldest of Sujata’s male cousins, staked claim for karta-ship. Sujata challenged him, saying that as the eldest of their generation, she would be the karta. The male members of the family had said that she was not entitled to the position since the 2005 amendment specified only a share in the property and did not automatically give any right to the management of the property. They also argued that customary practice did not allow women to become karta.
What did the Delhi High Court say?
The bench of Justice Najmi Waziri said that since the 2005 amendment had given “equal” rights to the daughters as coparceners, there was “no reason why Hindu women should be denied the position of karta… If a male member of an HUF, by virtue of his being the first-born, can be a karta, so can a female member”. The bench also said that married daughters cannot be prevented from becoming the karta of the family as they have coparcenary rights to the HUF property. The court also noted that the 174th Report of the Law Commission of India had “argued that when women are equal in all respects of modern-day life, there is no reason why they should be deprived of the right and privilege of managing HUF as their karta.” The Sujata case is the first such case to be decided by any high court in the country though there is no data available on whether similar cases are pending before courts.
How does this affect the joint family property?
The “joint family”, as a social unit distinct from the HUF, usually does not include a married daughter. HUF, on the other hand, does not differentiate between a married and unmarried coparcener, as their shares in the family property continue to remain the same. The High Court also noted that “Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act is a socially beneficial legislation. It gives equal rights of inheritance to Hindu males and females. Its objective is to recognise the rights of female Hindus as coparceners and to enhance their right to equality apropos succession.”
Is this verdict expected to run into practical problems?
Yes, says S K Gupta, associate professor of law at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. Gupta says the interpretation of law “ignores the context” in which the Indian joint family system works. “While the law is a beneficial legislation, practical problems will arise with regard to giving kartaship to women, as women of most business families in the country rarely participate in the actual management of the business and property,” he says. Advocate Anupam Shrivastava, who practices family law in Delhi, says he expects more disputes to come up. Advocate Mala Goel, who represented Sujata Sharma before the Delhi High Court, says that while the law is very clear on the rights of women, society usually denies property rights to daughters, specially to married daughters.