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Family Law Sons Pious Obligation

Written by: Priyanka Tiwari and Ritu Sharma
Personal Law
Legal Service
  • Under the Hindu Law, a son is under a pious obligation to discharge his father's debts out of his ancestral property even if he had not been benefited by the debts, provided the debts are not avyavaharika. The sons get exonerated from their obligation to discharge the debt of their father from the family assets only if the debt was one tainted with immorality or illegality.

    The duty that is cast upon the son being religious and moral, the liability of the son for the debt must be examined with reference to its character when the debt was first incurred. If at the origin there was nothing illegal or repugnant to good morals, the subsequent dishonesty of the father is in not discharging his obligation will not absolve the son from liability for the debt.

    In Hindu law there are two mutually destructive principles, one the principle of independent coparcenary rights in the sons which is an incident of birth, giving to the sons vested right in the coparcenary property, and the other the pious duty of the sons to discharge their father's debts not tainted with immorality or illegality, which lays open the whole estate to be seized for the payment of such debts. According to the Hindu law givers his pious duty to pay off the ancestors' debts and to relieve him of the death torments consequent on non-payment was irrespective of their inheriting any property, but the courts rejected this liability arising irrespective of inheriting any property and gave to this religious duty a legal character.

    What is son's pious obligation- history

    If a debt contracted by the father has not been repaid during his lifetime, by himself, it must be restored, after his death, by his sons. Should they separate, they shall repay it according to their respective shares. If they remain united, they shall pay it in common, or the manager shall pay it for the rest, no matter whether he may be the senior of the family or a younger member, who, during the absence of the oldest, or on account of his incapacity, has undertaken the management of the family estate.

    Mukherjea J., delivering the judgment of the Supreme Court in Sidheshwar v. Bhubaneshwar Prasad, has once again discussed this question. According to the learned Judge, the doctrine of pious obligation. "has its origin in the conception of Smriti writers who regard non-payment of debt as a positive Sin, the evil consequences of which follow the undischarged debtor even in the after world. It is for the purpose of rescuing the father from his torments in the next world that an obligationis imposed upon the sons to pay their father's debts."

    A series of decisions in the courts of modern India have changed the traditional interpretation of the liabilities of the son, grandson, and great-grandson. The traditional distinction was that the son was liable to pay the principal and the interest, the grandson was liable to pay only the principal but no interest, and the great-grandson was liable only to the extent that the paternal estate came into his hands. The son, grandson, and the great-grandson are liable equally for ancestral debts, but not personally liable, and that their liability is co-extensive and confined to the extent that they have joint property in their possession.
    It was not essential for the son to prove criminal liability against the father in respect of the debt in question in order to claim exemption from payment of such debt. The learned Judge pointed out that the son can claim immunity only when the father's conduct is utterly repugnant to good morals or is grossly un-iust or is flagrantly dishonest.

    Avyavaharik debts

    In this section we will look as to what is meant by Avyavaharik debts. Colebrooke defined it as a liability incurred for a cause repugnant to good morals. If it is unrighteous or wholly improper they cannot be called vyavaharika or legal debts. It may be that the debts incurred by the father for defending himself against criminal action against others or defending himself in an action brought by others are legal in several circumstances. If a debt was incurred to defend the rights of the family and to safeguard its interests, it is certainly legal in nature. If a debt is not tainted with illegality at its inception it may be binding on the son. The son may not be able to claim immunity from the debts in such cases. But, where the father's conduct which prompted the incurring of the debt, is utterly repugnant to good morals or is grossly unjust or flagrantly dishonest, then certainly the son can claim immunity from its liability. The learned author Mulla of Hindu Law (at pp, 350 and 351 in l3th edition) places any debt which is avyavaharika which is rendered by Colebrooke as equivalent to a debt for a cause "repugnant to good morals'' in the list of Avyavaharika debts. It is further stated that the fundamental rule is that the sons are not liable for the debts
    incurred by father which are Avyavaharika. Colebrooke translates it as "debts for a cause repugnant to good morals." Aparaka explains it as not righteous or proper.

    In a decision of a Full Bench in Bombay High Court it was held that Avyavaharika debt means illegal, dishonest or immoral one. It is not essential for the son to prove criminal liability of the father in order to claim exemption. So, where a person in possession of property, to which he is not entitled, disposes of that property and deprives the rightful owner of that property, his conduct is dishonest and the son is not liable for the debts arising out of such conduct Lord Dunedin of the Privy Council defined the antecedent debts as antecedent in fact as well as in time i.e. not a part of transaction impeached. Thus two condition are necessary:
    1. The debts must be prior in time and
    2. The debts must be prior in fact.

    A son could claim immunity only where the debt in its origin was immoral by reason of the money having been obtained by the commission of an offence; but not where the father came by the money lawfully but subsequently misappropriated it. It is only in the former case that the debt answers the description of an Avyavaharika debt. If originally the taking was not immoral, i.e., if it did not have a corrupt beginning or founded upon fraud, it could not be characterised as an Avyavaharika debt and the son could not be exempted from satisfying that debt. The supervening event, namely, the misappropriation later on would not change the nature of the debt. The vices should be inherent in the debt itself.

    Immoral debts are those which are taken in furtherance of an immoral purpose such as for prostitution or for keeping of concubine. Thus the expenses of the marriage of concubine's granddaughter or to bribe to hindu women so that she may take one of his son in adoption or purpose of gambling will be for illegal purpose .the debts resulting from the highly tortuous act which at their inception are tainted with an evil purpose are avyavaharika. Father's power of alienation for antecedent debts.

    The father himself can alienate the joint family property property for the discharge of his personal debt and son can challenge it only if the debts are tainted. This means that the father can do it indirectly also. The pious obligation of the son to pay off the father debt exits whether the father is alive or dead. It is open to father during his life time , to convey joint family property including the interest of the son to pay off antecedent debts not incurred for family necessity or benefit provided the debts are not tainted with immorality. The father can not do so after filing of the suit for partition.

    Burden of proof that the debts is tainted is on sons

    The obligation on son to pay off their father's personal debts is religious obligation and if they want to wriggle out of it? they can do so only if the debts are tainted the son also have to show that creditor had the notice or knowledge that the debts was tainted.

    The Apex Court in Luhar Marit Lal Nagji v. Doshi Jayantilal Jethalal, relying upon the judgments of the Privy Council referred to (supra), enunciated the principles thus : "the sons who challenge the alienations made by the father have to prove not only that the antecedent debts were immoral but also that the purchasers had notice that they were so tainted."
    The learned judge points out that the doctrine, as formulated in the original texts, has indeed been modified in some respects by judicial decisions. That under the law as it now stands, the obligation of the sons is not a personal obligation existing irrespective of the receipt of any assets, and that it is a liability confined to the assets received by him in his share of the joint family property or to his interest in the same. The obligation exists whether the sons are major or minor or whether the father is alive or dead. If the debts have been contracted by the father and they are not immoral or irreligious, the interest of the sons in the coparceners property can always be made liable for such debts.

    The proposition laid down in Brij Narain's case is founded upon the pious obligation is that a Hindu son limited to his interest in the joint family property to pay the debt contracted by the father for his own benefit and not for any immoral or illegal purpose. By incurring the debt, the father enables the creditor to sell the property in execution of a decree against him for payment of the debt. The son is under a pious obligation to pay all debts of the father, whether secured or unsecured.

    In Venkatesh Dhonddev Deshpande v. Sou. Kusum Dattatraya Kulkarni, the observations of the Supreme Court are as follows:
    Whether father is the Karta of a Joint Hindu family and the debts are contracted by the father in his capacity as manager and head of the family for family purposes, the sons as members of the joint family are bound to pay the debts to the extent of their interest in the coparcenary property. Further, where the sons are joint with their father and the debts have been contracted by the father for his own personal benefit, the sons are liable to pay the debts provided they are not incurred for illegal or immoral purposes.

    When a mortgage has been created by the father A Full Bench of the High Court gave the following answer:
    "In the case of a Hindu joint family consisting of a father and sons when a mortgage has been created by the father of joint property, and a decree has been obtained on the basis of the mortgage, the only ground on which the sons can challenge the mortgage and the decree is that the debt was incurred for illegal or immoral purposes and that for this purpose it is immaterial whether the mortgaged property has actually been brought to sale in execution of the decree or not."
    It may be mentioned here that the distinction between a father manager and a brother manager cannot be lost sight. In the case of debts contracted by the father manager, the son is bound to discharge the same on account of the doctrine of pious obligation notwithstanding the fact that the debt was contracted for no legal necessity, nor for the benefit of the family. The doctrine of pious obligation has no application in the case of the brother manager. Therefore, the debt contracted by the brother manager binds the other members the joint family only when it was for legal necessity and for the benefit the family. The doctrine of pious obligation has no application when the debt contracted by the father was for any illegal or immoral purposes.

    In Hemraj v. Khem Chand, the Court referred to the Judicial Committee's view which held that the translation of the term 'avyavaharika' as given by Mr. Colebrooke makes the nearest approach to the true conception the term as used in the Smrithi text, and that the term does not admit of a more precise definition. The term commonly used in decisions and text books to describe those debts the father for which the son is not liable is 'illegal or immoral'. The expression was doubtless originally meant to render 'avyavaharika' but it has come to be used as a compendious temi to cover all the cases enumerated in the smiritis. It is, therefore, expedient to use the term 'illegal or immoral' purposes then 'avyavaharika' which as discussed by me supra eludes any precise definition.
    No pious obligation is involved in the said debt inasmuch as it is not the personal debt neither the father nor the debts contracted for the benefit of the family. As understood the legal position is so clear that so long as the purpose is not tainted with the element of illegality or immorality the sons are liable under thedoctrine of pious obligation.

    In Keshav Nandan Sahay Vs. The Bank of Bihar it was said that sons are liable under the theory of pious obligation for the preparation debts incurred by the father. The doctrine of pious obligation cannot apply to the wife and she, therefore, cannot be liable to the creditors on the principles applicable to the sons. On a partition between a coparcener and his sons, a share is allotted to the wife in her own right and she cannot be treated as mere representative of the husband. The principle is based upon ancient Hindu texts which do not mention the wife in the category of the sons and there is no statutory enactment ex- tending that doctrine so as to include her.

    Ramasamayyan v. Virasami Ayyar ((1898) I.L.R. 21 Mad. 222)

     Even where the mortgage is not for legal necessity or for payment of antecedent debt, the creditor can, in execution of a mortgage decree for the realisation of a debt which the father is personally liable to repay, sell the estate without obtaining a personal decree against him. After the sale has taken place, the son is bound by the sale, unless he shows that the debt was non-existent or was tainted with immorality or illegality.

    Apentala Raghavaiah Vs. Boggawarapu Peda Ammayya

    In this case, the plaintiff's father Yellamanda did Tobacco business with the respondent and thereby became indebted to him and because of which the father sold the property to defendant for paying off the debts.The respondent contested the petition by filing his counter contending that the Tobacco business was done by the father the petitioner for the benefit the joint family and the debt contracted by him is not 'Avyavaharika debt' that the petitioner is liable to discharge such debt incurred by his father in connection with such business.

    In the decision of the Supreme Court reported in Manibhai v. Hemraj,
    also it is observed in para-38, after referring to various earlier decisions of the Supreme Court as well as some other High Courts, as follows:
    "Even if "any loan is taken by the father for his personal benefit which is found as vyavaharik debt and not avyavaharik, the sons are liable to discharge their father's debt under the doctrine of pious obligation and in this view the matter if any alienation the joint family property is subsequently made to discharge such antecedent debt or loan of the father, such alienation would be binding on the sons.''

    The Hindu Undivided Family system is a unique feature of the Indian society and the concept of pious obligation acts as a thread which binds the family together and prevents it from disintegration. Pious obligation includes both spiritual as well as material aspects and makes the heir(s) responsible/liable for spiritual duties, like performing the last rites of the deceased, paying back debts accrued by the deceased and also fulfilling other responsibilities left incomplete in respect of the joint family. Once pious obligation is abrogated, the concept of joint family also suffers a blow.

    "The doctrine of pious obligation under which sons are held liable to discharge their father's debts is based solely on religious considerations; the doctrine inevitably postulates that the father's debts must be vyavaharik. If the debts are not vyavaharik or are avyavaharik the doctrine of pious obligation cannot be invoked." The principle relating to the liability of the sons for debts incurred by the father may be briefly recapitulated.
    # In respect of debts contracted by the father, even for his personal benefit, at a point of time when he is joint with his sons, the sons are liable to pay such debts, unless the debts were incurred for immoral or illegal purposes.
    # This liability of the sons, which had its origin in an obligation of piety and religion, has since metamorphosed into one of legal liability but this 'does not, however, extend to debts tainted with immorality.
    # The liability is not, however, personal in the sense that the creditor of the father cannot proceed either against the person or separate Property of the sons, but such liability is Restricted to the interest of the sons in the family property.
    # It is settled that if the debt is contracted by the father after partition, the son cannot be made liable
    # If, however, the debt is a pre-partition debt, the share of the sons would be liable even after partition, if the debts of the father are not immoral or illegal and the partition arrangement does not make any provision for the discharge of such debts.
    # In case a creditor institutes a suit for the recovery of a debt against the father before partition and obtains a decree, the sons would be liable to discharge the decree passed against the father even after the partition.
    # Even in respect of a pre-partition debt, if a suit is instituted against the father, after partition, but he dies and his separated sons are impleaded as legal representatives, the remedy of the decree-holder against the shares allotted to the sons on partition, would be in execution and not by way of an independent suit.
    # If, however, after partition, a suit is instituted against the father on a pre-partition debt and a decree is obtained against him, such a decree cannot be executed against the sons and a separate suit has to be brought against the sons in order to enable creditor to realize the amounts out of their shares.
    Thus the liability of the interest of the sons in such cases to discharge the debts incurred by the father is undisputed, though the method and manner of its enforcement by the creditor would vary and the sons must be afforded every opportunity, be it in a suit or execution proceedings to question the binding nature of the debt' or liability.

    After amendment of 2005

    After the commencement of the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, no court shall recognize any right to proceed against a son, grandson or great-grandson for the recovery of any debt due from his father, grandfather or great-grandfather solely on the ground of the pious obligation under the Hindu law, of such son, grandson or great-grandson to discharge any such debt.

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