A will is valid if it fulfils the statutory requirements of sections 63 and 68 of the Indian Succession Act, 1925 and it is proved that (a) the testator signed the Will out of his own free Will, (b) at the time of execution he had a sound state of mind, (c) he was aware of the nature and effect thereof and (d) the Will was not executed under any suspicious circumstances.
What is a Will?
A Will is an instrument of testamentary disposition of property. It is a legally acknowledged mode of bequeathing a testator’s property during his lifetime to be acted upon on his/her death and carries with it an element of sanctity. It speaks from the death of the testator. Since the testator/testatrix, at the time of testing the document for its validity, would not be available for deposing as to the circumstances in which the Will came to be executed, stringent requisites for the proof thereof have been statutorily enjoined to rule out the possibility of any manipulation.
Relevant provisions of the Indian Succession Act, 1925
Section 63 of the Indian Succession Act, 1925 deals with the validity and execution of the Will. It reads as follows:
“Section 63 of the Indian Succession Act, 1925
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 direction.
(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 acknowledgement 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.
Section 68 of Indian Evidence Act 1872
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: xxx”
A bare reading of the aforesaid provisions show that the requirements enshrined under Section 63 of the Succession Act have to be categorically complied with for the execution of the Will to be proven in terms of Section 68 of the Evidence Act.
The principles required for proving the validity and execution of the Will
The principles required for proving the validity and execution of the Will are laid down in several judgements of the Supreme Court including H. Venkatachala Iyengar v. B.N. Thimmajamma, 1959 Supp (1) SCR 426, Bhagwan Kaur v. Kartar Kaur, (1994) 5 SCC 135, Janki Narayan Bhoir v. Narayan Namdeo Kadam, (2003) 2 SCC 91, Yumnam Ongbi Tampha Ibema Devi v. Yumnam Joykumar Singh, (2009) 4 SCC 780 and Shivakumar v. Sharanabasappa, (2021) 11 SCC 277. These are the following:
i. The court has to consider two aspects: firstly, that the Will is executed by the testator, and secondly, that it was the last Will executed by him;
ii. It is not required to be proved with mathematical accuracy, but the test of satisfaction of the prudent mind has to be applied.
iii. A Will is required to fulfil all the formalities required under Section 63 of the Succession Act, that is to say:
(a) The testator shall sign or affix his mark to the Will or it shall be signed by some other person in his presence and by his direction and the said signature or affixation shall show that it was intended to give effect to the writing as a Will;
(b) It is mandatory to get it attested by two or more witnesses, though no particular form of attestation is necessary;
(c) Each of the attesting witnesses must have 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 such signatures;
(d) Each of the attesting witnesses shall sign the Will in the presence of the testator, however, the presence of all witnesses at the same time is not required;
iv. For the purpose of proving the execution of the Will, at least one of the attesting witnesses, who is alive, subject to the process of court, and capable of giving evidence, shall be examined;
v. The attesting witness should speak not only about the testator’s signatures but also that each of the witnesses had signed the will in the presence of the testator;
vi. If one attesting witness can prove the execution of the Will, the examination of other attesting witnesses can be dispensed with;
vii. Where one attesting witness examined to prove the Will fails to prove its due execution, then the other available attesting witness has to be called to supplement his evidence;
viii. Whenever there exists any suspicion as to the execution of the Will, it is the responsibility of the propounder to remove all legitimate suspicions before it can be accepted as the testator’s last Will. In such cases, the initial onus on the propounder becomes heavier.
ix. The test of judicial conscience has been evolved for dealing with those cases where the execution of the Will is surrounded by suspicious circumstances. It requires to consider factors such as awareness of the testator as to the content as well as the consequences, nature and effect of the dispositions in the Will; sound, certain and disposing state of mind and memory of the testator at the time of execution; testator executed the Will while acting on his own free Will;
x. One who alleges fraud, fabrication, undue influence et cetera has to prove the same. However, even in the absence of such allegations, if there are circumstances giving rise to doubt, then it becomes the duty of the propounder to dispel such suspicious circumstances by giving a cogent and convincing explanation.
xi. Suspicious circumstances must be ‘real, germane and valid’ and not merely ‘the fantasy of the doubting mind’1. Whether a particular feature would qualify as ‘suspicious’ would depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. Any circumstance raising suspicion legitimate in nature would qualify as a suspicious circumstance for example, 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, etc.
As is evident from the above, apart from statutory compliance, broadly it has to be proved that (a) the testator signed the Will out of his own free Will, (b) at the time of execution he had a sound state of mind, (c) he was aware of the nature and effect thereof and (d) the Will was not executed under any suspicious circumstances.
These principles were applied by the Supreme Court in Meena Pradhan & Ors. Vs. Kamla Pradhan & Anr. [Civil Appeal No. 3351 of 2014 arising out of SLP(C) No. 17115/2010]. It was held that the Will was duly executed by the testator in the presence of witnesses out of his free Will in a sound disposing state of mind and the same stood proven through the testimony of one of the attesting witnesses. The witness categorically stated that the testator executed the Will in question and, both he and the testator signed the Will in the presence of each other.
The Court also held that there was no evidence on record to conclude that the deceased was not in a fit or stable mental condition at the time of execution of a Will, or that a Will was executed under suspicious circumstances, or the presence of any element of undue influence.