Women’s right to property: Know what the law says

The Hindu law lays emphasis on ‘right by birth’, which gives a woman rights in her parents’ property by birth. (Photo: iStockphoto)
The Hindu law lays emphasis on ‘right by birth’, which gives a woman rights in her parents’ property by birth. (Photo: iStockphoto)


  • Property inheritance rights in India are governed by personal laws of different religions.

Women’s empowerment got a leg up in September when the government cleared a constitutional amendment reserving one-third seats for women in parliament and state assemblies. That was a great step towards gender parity in the political domain. But, what does the law say about the economic empowerment of women? Can women claim their share of family property, and, if so, what would be their share? Are there different rights to property for a woman before her marriage and after that? Such questions pop up regularly during debates and court hearings relating to division of property.

To be sure, women’s rights have made great strides in the last two decades, especially where it concerns Hindu women. Amendments in the Hindu Succession Act in 2015, among the many key changes, granted daughters equal share in property acquired by her parents and in any Hindu undivided family (HUF).

Property inheritance rights in India are governed by personal laws of different religions. The Hindu Succession Act, for instance, applies to Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists. For Muslims, the Muslim Personal Law is applicable, while the Indian Succession Act governs the rights of Parsis, Christians and Jews.

Bharat Chugh, an advocate at the Supreme Court and a former judge, said parts of the Indian Succession Act are also applicable to Hindus, Sikhs and Jains but only when there is nothing in the Hindu Succession Act to the contrary. “As far as the joint Hindu family property or Hindu successions are concerned, the Hindu Succession Act takes precedence over Indian Succession Act. The Indian Succession Act is not applicable to Muslims," he said.

Succession laws for Christian women are quite straightforward. Daughters get the same rights in parents property as sons and a married women’s share in the husband’s property depends on the number of legal heirs eligible to lay claim to the property. For instance, in the case of a married couple who have children, a woman gets one-third of the property if the husband dies, whereas a widow gets half of it when there are no children but there are other heirs.

The laws are relatively complicated for Hindu and Muslim women. The Hindu Succession Act has distinctive laws for self-acquired and ancestral property and there are multiple levels of heirs–Class I, Class II and Class III. The share of a property that a Muslim woman is entitled to depends on the different sects in the Islamic Law. “For instance, there are differences between Shia and Sunni law. Within Sunni law, there are distinctions and different sects such as Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanabali, and inheritance operates differently under all," Chugh said.

In this article, Mint breaks down the jargon pertaining to inheritance rights of Hindu and Muslim women in an easy to understand Q&A, or question and answer, format. Take note that succession laws apply to all types of assets—real estate property, bank deposits, stocks, etc—uniformly in both Hindu and Muslim laws.


(Graphic: Mint)
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(Graphic: Mint)

Unmarried women

Does a woman have rights over her parent’s property by birth?

Hindus: The Hindu law accepts ‘right by birth’, which gives a woman rights in her parents’ property by birth. This includes both HUF property and assets bought by her parents with their own incomes.

Muslims: The Muslim Law does not accept ‘right by birth’, says Vishnu Chundi, founder and CEO, AasaanWill.

What is their share if parents die without leaving behind a will?

Hindus: Daughters are class I heirs, which gives them an equal right over the parents property if the latter die without defining distribution of their assets and properties through a will. “All class 1 legal heirs inherit the property in equal measure," said Chugh.

Muslims: Female heirs get half of the share of properties that the male heirs get. For instance, in a family that has one son and a daughter and six assets to be devolved, the former will get four assets and the latter gets two.

“The justification available to this distinction under Muslim law is that the female shall upon marriage receive mehr and maintenance from her husband, whereas men will only inherit the property of ancestors. Also, men have the duty of maintaining their wife and children," said Chundi.

Can a woman contest a will if all the assets are passed on to the sons?

Hindus: A Hindu woman, as a daughter, in accordance with section 6 of Hindu Succession Law, has the right to her father’s property, and so can raise a dispute. Moreover, the Hindu law doesn’t forbid anyone from a legal suit regarding will dispute. But, realistically, a will can be challenged on limited grounds as it is sacrosanct.

Chundi said in case of the devolvement of HUF property, there are high chances for a daughter to win the case. Chugh agreed and said as there are certain limitations that apply where rights of other members of the joint hindu family and coparceners are also to be respected and balanced.

Muslims: As per the Muslim law, a person can pass on only one-third of property through a will, while the remaining two-thirds is devolved as per succession law. For instance, if a man owns six assets, he can distribute two through a will while the remaining four will be passed on to legal heirs as per the succession law. In Muslim law, there is no concept of a coparcenary or a joint family property.

Can a man who buys property in his wife’s name with his income pass it on to his sons?

No, legally the man can’t dictate anything for his wife’s property. “As the property was purchased under her name, only the wife has the ownership and, so, only she has the rights to transfer its titleship," Chundi said.

Do women have a right to agrarian land as well?

Hindus: The law treats agriculture on a par with non-agrarian real estate property where it concerns distribution and inheritance to a Hindu woman. However, this wasn’t always the case. “The Section 4(2) of the Hindu Succession Act did not include agricultural lands under its scope of inheritance. This was revoked in 2005 by adding the right to claim inheritance over agricultural lands," said Chundi.

Muslims: Chundi said the Muslim law treats agriculture differently from non-agrarian real estate property. “Muslim Personal Law does not allow women a share in agricultural land. However, a few states have recently amended this," he said.

Married women

What are a woman’s rights over husband’s property?

Hindus: A widow is entitled to property as a class I heir. Apart from a widow, the mother, son, daughter, or widow of a predeceased son and son or daughter of a predeceased daughter are all treated as Class I heirs and get equal share in a man’s self-acquired and HUF properties.

Muslims: In Muslim Law, there is no concept of a coparcenary (intestate ancestral property) or a joint family property but a Muslim woman is entitled to a share in her husband’s property either as a co-owner or individually. However, the intricacies vary as per different sects. For instance, as per Sharia laws, if the husband leaves behind only daughters, his brothers are also entitled to get a share, said Chugh.

Does a married woman have rights over parents’ properties?

Hindus: A daughter is a class I heir in parents’ properties irrespective of her marital status and is entitled to an equal share in the estate.

Muslims: Daughters are rightful heirs but their share in the parents’ properties is half of what their brothers get.

What are a woman’s rights over her son’s property?

Hindus: Being a Class I heir, a mother gets an equal share as the deceased son’s widow and children, if any. In the case of a single man with no children, the mother is the sole heir of his estate.

Muslims: A Muslim woman’s share in the son’s property depends on his offspring. “If a son dies with no children then she is entitled to one-third share, whereas if the deceased son has children then her share becomes one-sixth," said Chugh.

In case of an interfaith marriage, what inheritance laws are applicable to a woman?

Couples can marry under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, wherein either of the spouses is not required to convert to the religion of the other. In this case, the Indian Succession Act applies. “Personal law governing their religion ceases to apply," said Chugh.

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