3 May 2010

Proof of will: The law revisited

In a recent decision in S.R. SRINIVASA versus S. PADMAVATHAMMA, examining the appraisal of the Kerala High Court, the Supreme Court has revisited and restated the law relating to proof of will. Pointing out the various factors required to be examined before a will can be stated to be genuine and true, the Supreme Court discussed the earlier decisions in which the law had been stated and declared the circumstances in which the claim of the will being genuine be considered to be suspicious. 

The Supreme Court inter alia held as under;
24. The mode, the manner and the relevant legal provisions which govern the proof of Wills have been elaborately dilated upon by this Court in a number of cases. We may make a reference only to some of these decisions.
25. In the case of H. Venkatachala Iyengar v. B.N. Thimmajamma, [1959 Supp (1) SCR 426] Gajendragadkar J. stated the true legal position in the matter of proof of Wills. The aforesaid statement of law was further clarified by Chandrachud J. in the case of Jaswant Kaur v Amrit Kaur [(1977) 1 SCC 369] as follows:
“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 substantial 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 legitimate suspicions before the document can be accepted as the last will of the testator.
5. It is in 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.”
26. Applying the aforesaid principles to this case, it would become evident that the Will has not been duly proved. As noticed earlier in this case, none of the attesting witnesses have been examined. The scribe, who was examined as DW.2, has not stated that he had signed the Will with the intention to attest. In his evidence, he has merely stated that he was the scribe of the Will. He even admitted that he could not remember the names of the witnesses to the Will. In such circumstances, the observations made by this Court in the case of M.L. Abdul Jabbar Sahib v. M.V. Venkata Sastri & Sons, [(1969) 1 SCC 573], become relevant. Considering the question as to whether a scribe could also be an attesting witness, it is observed as follows: 
“It  is essential that the witness should have put his signature animo attestandi, that is, for the purpose of attesting that he has seen the executant sign or has received from him a personal acknowledgment of his signature. If a person puts his signature on the document for some other purpose, e.g., to certify that he is a scribe or an identifier or a registering officer, he is not an attesting witness.”
27. In our opinion, the aforesaid test has not been satisfied by DW.2 the scribe. The situation  herein is rather similar to the circumstances considered by this Court in the case of N. Kamalam v. Ayyasamy, [(2001) 7 SCC 503]. Considering the effect of the signature of scribe on a Will, this Court observed as follows: 
“26.The effect of subscribing a signature on the part of the scribe cannot in our view be identified to be of the same status as that of the attesting witnesses.” “The animus to attest, thus, is not available, so far as the scribe is concerned: he is not a witness to the will but a mere writer of the will. The statutory requirement as noticed above cannot thus be transposed in favour of the writer, rather goes against the propounder since both the witnesses are named therein with detailed address and no attempt has been made to bring them or to produce them before the court so as to satisfy the judicial conscience. Presence of scribe and his signature appearing on the document does not by itself be taken to be the proof of due attestation unless the situation is so expressed in the document itself — this is again, however, not the situation existing presently in the matter under consideration.”
28. The aforesaid observations are fully applicable in this case. Admittedly, none of the attesting witnesses have been examined. Here signature of the scribe cannot be taken as proof of  attestation. Therefore, it becomes evident that the execution of a Will can be held to have been proved when the statutory requirements for proving the Will are satisfied. The High Court has however held that proof of the Will was not necessary as the execution of the Will has been  admitted in the pleadings in O.S.No.233 of 1998, and in the evidence of P.W.1.

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