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Provisions and Principles of Law on Will

The expression "Will" is defined by Section 2(h) of Indian Succession Act, 1925 to mean the legal declaration of "the intention" of a testator with respect to his property "which he desires to be carried into effect after his death". 

Section 59 of Indian Succession Act, 1925 governs the capability of a person to make a Will. It reads thus:-
"59. Person capable of making Wills. - Every person of sound mind not being a minor may dispose of his property by Will.
Explanation 1 - A married woman may dispose by Will of any property which she could alienate by her own act during her life.
Explanation 2 - Persons who are deaf or dumb or blind are not thereby incapacitated for making a Will if they are able to know what they do by it. 
Explanation 3 - A person who is ordinarily insane may make a Will during interval in which he is of sound mind. 
Explanation 4 - No person can make a Will while he, is in such a state of mind, whether arising from intoxication or from illness or from any other cause, that he does not know what he is doing.
Section 59 thus declares that every person (not being a minor) "of sound mind" may dispose of his property by Will. The second explanation appended to the said provision clarifies that persons who are "deaf or dumb or blind" are not incapacitated by such condition for making a Will "if they are able to know what they do by it". The third explanation makes the basic principle pellucid by adding that even a person who is "ordinarily insane" may make a Will during the interval in which "he is of sound mind". The fourth explanation renders it even more lucent by putting it negatively in words to the effect that it the person "does not know what he is doing" for any reason (such an intoxiation, illness or any other such cause) he is incompetent to make a Will. The focal pre-requisite, thus, is that at the time of expressing his desire vis-a-vis the disposition of the estate after his demise he must know and understand its purport or import.

The execution of an unprivileged Will is governed by Section 63 of the Indian Succession Act, 1925, which reads thus:-
"63 Execution of unprivileged Wills. - Every testator, not being a soldier employed in an expedition or engaged in actual warfare, or an airman so employed or engaged, or a mariner at sea, shall execute his Will according to the following rules:- 
(a) The testator shall sign or shall affix his mark to the Will, or it shall be signed by some other person in his presence and by his directions. 
(b) The signature or mark of the testator, or the signature of the person signing for him, shall be so placed that it shall appear that it was intended thereby to give effect to the writing as a Will. 
(c) The Will shall be attested by two or more witnesses, each of whom has seen the testator sign or affix his mark to the Will or has seen some other person sign the Will, in the presence and by the direction of the testator, or has received from the testator a personal acknowledgment of his signature or mark, or the signature of such other person; and each of the witnesses shall sign the Will in the presence of the testator, but it shall not be necessary that more than one witness be present at the same time, and no particular form of attestation shall be necessary".
The plain words used in above quoted clause make it abundantly clear that the executant of a Will need not put his signatures and that affixing his mark is sufficient mode of authentication. As shall also be noted with reference to rule of evidence that while the law requires attestation by minimum two witnesses, it is not mandatory that both must have been present at the time when the testator executed the document, the presence of the testator being more important when the witnesses attest and further that, for proof of such execution and attestation, the testimony of only one of such witnesses is enough, that also only if such witness is alive and available.

The provisions contained in Section 67 and 68 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, also being germane to the discussion here, may be quoted:-
"67. Proof of signature and handwriting of person alleged to have signed or written document produced. - If a document is alleged to be signed or to have been written wholly or in part by any person, the signature or the handwriting of so much of the document as is alleged to be in that person's handwriting must be proved to be in his handwriting. 
68. Proof of execution of document required by law to be attested. - If a document is required by law to be attested, it shall not be used as evidence until one attesting witness at least has been called for the purpose of proving its execution, if there be an attesting witness alive, and subject to the process of the Court and capable of giving evidence: 
Provided that it shall not be necessary to call an attesting witness in proof of the execution of any document, not being a Will, which has been registered in accordance with the provision of the Indian Registration Act, 1908 (16 of 1908), unless its execution by the person by whom it purports to have been executed is specifically denied."
The judgment of the Supreme Court in the case reported as H. Venkatachala Iyangar v. B.N. Thimmajamma, AIR 1959 SC 443, is one of the early and celebrated judgments on the subject. After construing, amongst others, the above statutory clauses, the court ruled thus:-
"The question as to whether the will set up by the propounder is proved to be the last will of the testator has to be decided in the light of these provisions. Has the testator signed the Will? Did he understand the nature and effect of the dispositions in the will? Did he put his signature to the will knowing what it contained? Stated broadly it is the decision of these questions which determines the nature of the finding on the question of the proof of wills. It would prima facie be true to say that the will has to be proved like any other document except as to the special requirements of attestation prescribed by Section 63 of the Indian Succession Act. As in the case of proof of other documents so in the case of proof of wills it would be idle to expect proof with mathematical certainty. The test to be applied would be the usual test of the satisfaction of the prudent mind in such matters. 
There is one important feature which distinguishes wills from other documents. Unlike other documents the will speaks from the death of the testator, and so, when it is propounded or produced before a court, the testator who has already departed the world cannot say whether it is his will or not; and this aspect naturally introduces an element of solemnity in the decision of the question as to whether the document propounded is proved to be the last will and testament of the departed testator.
Even so, in dealing with the proof of wills the court will start on the same enquiry as in the case of the proof of documents. The propounder would be called upon to show by satisfactory evidence that the will was signed by the testator, that the testator at the relevant time was in a sound and disposing state of mind, that he understood the nature and effect of the dispositions and put his signature to the document of his own free will. 

Ordinarily when the evidence adduced in support of the will is disinterested, satisfactory and sufficient to prove the sound and disposing state of the testator's mind and his signature as required by law, courts would be justified in making a finding in favour of the propounder. In other words, the onus on the propounder can be taken to be discharged on proof of the essential facts just indicated.

Suspicious Circumstances


There may, however, be cases in which the execution of the will may be surrounded by suspicious circumstances. The alleged signature of the testator may be very shaky and doubtful and evidence in support of the propounder's case that the signature, in question is the signature of the testator may not remove the doubt created by the appearance of the signature; the condition of the testator's mind may appear to be very feeble and debilitated; and evidence adduced may not succeed in removing the legitimate doubt as to the mental capacity of the testator; the dispositions made in the will may appear to be unnatural, improbable or unfair in the light of relevant circumstances; or, the will may otherwise indicate that the said dispositions may not be the result of the testator's free will and mind. 

In such cases the court would naturally expect that all legitimate suspicions should be completely removed before the document is accepted as the last will of the testator. The presence of such suspicious circumstances naturally tends to make the initial onus very heavy; and, unless it is satisfactorily discharged, courts would be reluctant to treat the document as the last will of the testator. It is true that, if a caveat is filed alleging the exercise of undue influence fraud or coercion in respect of the execution of the will propounded, such pleas may have to be proved by the caveators; but, even without such pleas circumstances may raise a doubt as to whether the testator was acting of his own free will in executing the will, and in such circumstances, it would be a part of the initial onus to remove any such legitimate doubts in the matter.

In Shashi Kumar Banerjee vs. Subodh Kumar Banerjee, AIR 1964, SC 529, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had the occasion to rule on the principles governing mode of proof of a Will before a probate court. Referring, inter alia, to the earlier decision of H. Venkatachala Iyengar (supra), the court held:-
"The mode of proving a will does not ordinarily differ from that of proving any other document except as to the special requirement of attestation prescribed in the case of a will by S.63 of the Indian Succession Act. The onus of proving the will is on the propounder and in the absence of suspicious circumstances surrounding the execution of the will, proof of testamentary capacity and the signatures of the testator as required by law is sufficient to discharge the onus. Where however there are suspicious circumstances, the onus is on the propounder to explain them to the satisfaction of the Court before the Court accepts the will as genuine. Where the caveator alleges undue influence, fraud and coercion, the onus is on him to prove the same.
Even where there are no such pleas but the circumstances give rise to doubts, it is for the propounder to satisfy the conscience of the Court. The suspicious circumstances may be as to genuineness of the signature of the testator, the condition of the testator's mind, the dispositions made in the will being unnatural improbable or unfair in the light of relevant circumstances or there might be other indications in the will to show that the testator's mind was not free. In such a case the Court would naturally expect that all legitimate suspicious should be completely removed before the document is accepted as the last will of the testator. If the propounder himself takes part in the execution of the will which confers a susbtantial benefit on him, that is also a circumstance to be taken into account and the propounder is required to remove the doubts by clear and satisfactory evidence. If the propounder succeeds in removing the suspicious circumstances the Court would grant probate, even if the will might be unnatural and might cut off wholly or in part near relations.

In Jaswant Kaur Vs Amrit Kaur, (1977) 1 SCC 369, after analyzing the ratio in H. Venkatachala Iyangar (supra), the Supreme Court culled out the following propositions:-

1 Stated generally, a will has to be proved like any other document, the test to be applied being the usual test of the satisfaction of the prudent mind in such matters. As in the case of proof of other documents, so in the case of proof of wills, one cannot insist on proof with mathematical certainty.

2 Since Section 63 of the Succession Act requires a will to be attested, it cannot be used as evidence until, as required by Section 68 of the Evidence Act, one attesting witness at least has been called for the purpose of proving its execution, if there be an attesting witness alive. And subject to the process of the court and capable of giving evidence.

3 Unlike other documents, the will speaks from the death of the testator and therefore the maker of the will is never available for deposing as to the circumstances in which the will came to be executed. This aspect introduces an element of solemnity in the decision of the question whether the document propounded is proved to be the last will and testament of the testator. Normally, the onus which lies on the propounder can be taken to be discharged on proof of the essential facts which go into the making of the will.

4 Cases in which the execution of the will is surrounded by suspicious circumstances stand on a different footing. A shaky signature, a feeble mind, an unfair and unjust disposition of property, the propounder himself taking a leading part in the making of the will under which he receives a susbtantial benefit and such other circumstances raise suspicion about the execution of the will. That suspicion cannot be removed by the mere assertion of the propounder that the will bears the signature of the testator or that the testator was in a sound and disposing state of mind and memory at the time when the will was made, or that those like the wife and children of the testator who would normally receive their due share in his estate were disinherited because the testator might have had his own reasons for excluding them. The presence of suspicious circumstances makes the initial onus heavier and therefore, in cases where the circumstances attendant upon the execution of the will excite the suspicion of the court, the propounder must remove all ligitimate suspicions before the document can be accepted as the last will of the testator.

5 It is connection with wills, the execution of which is surrounded by suspicious circumstances that the test of satisfaction of the judicial conscience has been evolved. That test emphasises that in determining the question as to whether an instrument produced before the court is the last will of the testator, the court is called upon to decide a solemn question and by reason of suspicious circumstances the court has to be satisfied fully that the will has been validly executed by the testator. 

6 If a caveator alleges fraud, undue influence, coercion, etc. in regard to the execution of the will, such pleas have to be proved by him, but even in the absence of such pleas, the very circumstances surrounding the execution of the will may raise a doubt as to whether the testator was acting of his own free will. And then it is a part of the initial onus of the propounder to remove all reasonable doubts in the matter.

The decisions of the Supreme Court in Uma Devi Nambiar Vs. T.C. Sidhan, (2004) 2 SCC 321, and Pentakota Satyanarayana Vs. Pentakota Seetharatnam, (2005) 8 SCC 67 are authorities on the principle that active participation of the propounder or beneficiary in the execution of the Will or exclusion of the natural heirs need not or necessarily lead to an inference that the Will was not genuine. 

One may quote, with advantage, the following observations in Uma Devi Nambiar (supra):-
A will is executed to alter the ordinary mode of succession and by the very nature of things, it is bound to result in either reducing or depriving the share of natural heirs. If a person intends his property to pass to his natural heirs, there is no necessity at all of executing a will. It is true that a propounder of the will has to remove all suspicious circumstances. Suspicion means doubt, conjecture or mistrust. But the fact that natural heirs have either been excluded or a lesser share has been given to them, by itself without anything more, cannot be held to be a suspicious circumstances especially in a case where the bequest has been made in favour of an offspring.
As held in P.P.K. Gopalan Nambiar v. P.P.K. Balakrishnan Nambiar, 1995 Supp (2) SCC 664 it is the duty of the propounder of the will to remove all the suspected features, but there must be real, germane and valid suspicious features and not fantasy of the doubting mind. It has been held that if the propounder succeeds in removing the suspicious circumstances, the court has to give effect to the will, even if the will might be unnatural in the sense that it has cut off wholly or in part near relations. (See Pushpavathi v. Chandraraja Kadamba, (1993) 3 SCC 291

In Rabindra Nath Mukerjee v. Panchanan Banerjee, (1995) 4 SCC 459 it was observed that the circumstance of deprivation of natural heirs should not raise any suspicion because the whole idea behind execution of the will is to interfere with the normal line of succession and so, natural heirs would be debarred in every case of will. Of course, it may be that in some cases they are fully debarred and in some cases partly.

Following the above rulings, the Supreme Court in Mahesh Kumar (dead) by LRs Vs. Vinod Kumar & Ors., (2012) 4 SCC 387, held, in the facts and circumstances of the said case that the evidence unmistakably showing that the objectors had separated from the family, taking their respective shares, not bothering to look after the parents in their old age, there was "nothing unatural or unusual" in the decision of the testator (the father) to give his share in the joint family property to the son who, along with his wife and children, had taken care of the parents, adding that "any person of ordinary prudence would have adopted the same course and would not have given anything to the ungrateful children from his/her share in the property."

In Hari Singh & Anr Vs. The State & Anr. 2010 (120) DRJ 716, a division bench, after noting the law declared, inter alia, in Uma Devi Nambiar (supra), observed thus:-
Courts are not expected to be satisfied that a bequenathal is rational or not; what has to be considered is whether the bequest was so unnatural that the testator could not have mae it. There is nothing in law that prescribes that the testatmentary document has to be made and executed on the same day. Law does not mandate that each of the witnesses must be aware of the contents of the Will and the nature of the bequests. The rigours of attestation endeavour to eradicate manipulation and fabrication of such a testament by mandating that the testator as well as the witnesses should be simultaneously present at the time of its execution; nothing more and nothing less. Though there is no categorical evidence coming forth on the record, we do not find this fact to be legally anomalous or suspicious as to impeach the entire case of the appellant/petitioner."
In the recent judgment of Apex court in Jagdish Chand Sharma vs. Narain Singh Saini, (2015) 8 SCC 615 the principle of law laid down are reiterated as under.
The contentious pleadings and the assertions thereupon in the backdrop of the evidence as a whole have been analyzed. The pleading perspective notwithstanding, the purport and play of Section 63 of Indian Succession Act read with Section 68 and 71 of Indian Evidence Act, 1872, it would thus be apt, nay, imperative to refer to these legal provisions before embarking on the appreciation of evidence to the extent indispensable.
As would be evident from the contents of Section 63 of the Act that to execute the will as contemplated therein, the testatrix would have to sign or affix his mark to it or the same has to be signed by some other person in his presence and on his direction. Further, the signature or mark of the testatrix or the signature of the person signing for him has to be so placed that it would appear that it was intended thereby to give effect to the writing as will. The section further mandates that the will shall have to be attested by two or more witnesses each of whom has seen the testatrix sign or affix his mark to it or has seen some other persons sign it, in the presence and on the direction of the testatrix, or has received from the testatrix, personal acknowledgment of a signature or mark, or the signature of such other persons and that each of the witnesses has signed the will in the presence of the testatrix. It is, however, clarified that it would not be necessary that more than one witness be present at the same time and that no particular form of attestation would be necessary.

It cannot be gainsaid that the above legislatively prescribed essentials of a valid execution and attestation of a will under the Act are mandatory in nature, so much so that any failure or deficiency in adherence thereto would be at the pain of invalidation of such document/instrument of disposition of property.

In the evidentiary context Section 68 of the 1872 Act enjoins that if a document is required by law to be attested, it would not be used as evidence unless one attesting witness, at least, if alive, and is subject to the process of the court and capable of giving evidence proves its execution. The proviso attached to this section relaxes this requirement in case of a document, not being a will, but has been registered in accordance with the provisions of the Registration Act, 1908 unless its execution by the person by whom it purports to have been executed, is specifically denied.

These statutory provisions, thus, make it incumbent for a document required by law to be attested to have its execution proved by at least one of the attesting witnesses, if alive, and is subject to the process of the court conducting the proceedings involved and is capable of giving evidence. This rigour is, however, eased in case of a document also required to be attested but not a will, if the same has been registered in accordance with the provisions of the Registration Act, 1908 unless the execution of this document by the person said to have executed it denies the same. In any view of the matter, however, the relaxation extended by the proviso is of no avail qua a will. The proof of a will to be admissible in evidence with probative potential, being a document required by law to be attested by two witnesses, would necessarily need proof of its execution through at least one of the attesting witnesses, if alive, and subject to the process of the court concerned and is capable of giving evidence.

Section 71 provides, however, that if the attesting witness denies or does not recollect the execution of the document, its execution may be proved by the other evidence. The interplay of the above statutory provisions and the underlying legislative objective would be of formidable relevance in evaluating the materials on record and recording the penultimate conclusions.
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