It is well-known that the proof of wills presents a recurring topic for decision in courts and there are a large number of judicial pronouncements on the subject
It is well-known that the proof of wills presents a recurring topic for decision in courts and there are a large number of judicial pronouncements on the subject. The party propounding a will or otherwise making a claim under a will is no doubt seeking to prove a document and, in deciding how it isto be proved, we must inevitably refer to the statutory provisions which govern the proof of documents. Sections 68 of the Evidence Act and Section 63(c) of Indian Evidence Act are relevant for this purpose.
Sections 68 of the Evidence Act – “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 provisions 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”
Section 63(c) of Indian Evidence Act- “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 of 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.”
Apart from these statutory provisions certain test has to be satisfied for proving the execution of a will in accordance with the Will. These are :
1) Has the testator signed the will?
2) Did he understand the nature and effect ofthe dispositions in the will?
3) 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 s.63 of the Indian Succession Act.
Burden of Proof-
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. There may, however, be cases in which the execution of the will may be surrounded by suspicious circumstances. 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.
As mentioned above that in proof of execution of will, a very heavy burden lies on the propounder to prove the due execution of will and to remove any suspicious circumstances surrounding the execution of particular will in question. Over the period of time judicial pronouncements provide a detail list of these suspicious circumsnatcs, not exhaustive though. These suspicious circumstances are:
i. The signature of the testator may be very shaky and doubtful or not appear to be his usual signature.
ii. The condition of the testator’s mind may be very feeble and debilitated at the relevant time.
iii. The disposition may be unnatural, improbable or unfair in the light of relevant circumstances like exclusion of or absence of adequate provisions for the natural heirs without any reason.
iv. The dispositions may not appear to be the result of the testator’s free will and mind.
v. The propounder takes a prominent part in the execution of the Will.
vi. The testator used to sign blank papers.
vii. The Will did not see the light of the day for long.
viii. Incorrect recitals of essential facts.
Apart from the suspicious circumstances to which we have just referred, in some cases the wills propounded disclose another infirmity. Propounders themselves take a prominent part in the execution of the wills which confer on them substantial benefits. If it is shown that the propounder has taken a prominent part in the execution of the will and has received substantial benefit under it, that itself is generally treated as a suspicious circumstance attending the execution of the will and the propounder is required to remove the said suspicion by clear and satisfactory evidence. In such circumstances “the test of the satisfaction of judicial conscience” becomes essential. The test merely emphasizes that, in determining the question as to whether an instrument produced before the court is the last will of the testator, the court is deciding a solemn question and it must be fully satisfied that it had been validly executed by the testator who is no longer alive. It is obvious that for deciding material questions of fact which arise in applications for probate or in actions on wills, no hard and fast or inflexible rules can be laid down for the appreciation of the evidence. It may, however, be stated generally that a propounder of the will has to prove the due and valid execution of the will and that if there are any suspicious circumstances surrounding the execution of the will the propounder must remove the said suspicions from the mind of the court by cogent and satisfactory evidence.
The author of this Article is Nidhi Soni who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org