Hindu joint family is a critical concept of Hindu law and is taken to be the earliest unit of human society. It has evolved from the ancient patriarchy family. A joint Hindu family ‘includes all the linearly descended individuals from a common ancestor and includes their wives and unmarried daughters’. Along with the widows, even the illegitimate child is a part of the joint Hindu family. The joint Hindu family comes into existence from a common male ancestor. However, it does not depend on him for the continuance.
Similarly, a coparcenary is a narrow body of persons within the joint Hindu family. The coparceners are the owners of the joint Hindu family. Coparceners are those members of the family who acquire an interest in the joint Hindu family property. A coparcenary includes individuals up to three generations, excluding the last male holder of the property. Before 2005 a woman was not considered a coparcener, but after the amendment in 2005, women were given equal rights and liabilities as of that of a male coparcener.
The joint Hindu family, as well as the coparcenary property, is managed by the head of the family who is known as the Karta. The Karta represents the family and is responsible for the management of the property. Thus, Karta is a person with powers and holds a prominent position of responsibility. Generally, the eldest member of the family or the father is the Karta of the family.
What is the definition of Karta?
Karta is the senior-most member of the family who is the manager of the family, responsible for the management of the joint Hindu family and its property. He keeps custody of the income as well as the assets of the joint Hindu family and is expected to use them for the benefit and interest of the family. Thus, the Karta will be made liable if he misappropriates the money or property for any purpose, not in the joint interest of the family.
Karta is sui generis, which means that neither an agent nor a trustee of the family but the head. He is the custodian as well as the guardian of the family. He protects the family and takes care of the day to day expenses of the family.
Karta has the most crucial role in the joint Hindu family and hence, has been bestowed with various powers. He is not only responsible for the property alone but also for the welfare of the family. However, along with the powers he has been delegated, there are various rights given to the coparceners or the members of the joint Hindu family to see that the Karta does not misuse his power.
Who can become Karta?
Generally, the senior-most member of the family is the Karta. In the case of Kunjipokkarukutty v. A Ravunni (AIR 1973 Ker 192), it was held that with the absence of the father in the family, the senior-most member of the family becomes the Karta.
Who can be the Karta apart from the senior-most member in the family?
Other members of the family who can become Karta are:
- A junior member can become a Karta provided that the Karta appoints him with the consent of the other coparcener.
- A minor male can also act as a Karta but only through his legal guardian, till he becomes a major.
- A woman- Before 2005, women were not deemed to be coparceners and hence, could not be the Karta of the joint Hindu family.
However, with the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act in 2005, women became a coparcener and had the same rights and liabilities as of that of the male coparceners. However, they still did not have the right to become Karta.
It was only after the amendment of the Hindu Succession Act in 2016 that a woman could become a Karta of the family. In C. P. Berai v. Laxmi Narayan (AIR 1949 Nag 128), it was held that a widow could become a Karta in the absence of adult male members in the family. It was held that the main test was not to pass the title or liability of the Karta, but it was to see the transaction was necessary and justified.
In Sushila Devi Rampura vs Income-tax Officer (AIR 1959 Cal), it was held that if a family consisted of minor male members. This mother is the natural guardian could represent the joint Hindu family for the assessment and recovery of income tax.
In case of CIT (commission of income tax department) vs Seth Laxmi Narayan Raghunathdas ( 16 ITR 313 [Nag. ]), the question was raised as to whether a widow could be the Karta of her husband’s joint Hindu family. In this case, the High Court held that a widow was capable of becoming the Karta of the Hindu Undivided Family, which consisted of her and her two minor sons in this case.
The court reasoned that since in Dayabhaga Law a widow was a coparcener, she could also become the Karta of the family, especially in case if she is the only member sui juris left in the family. In case of Mitakshara Law, where the female could not be a coparcener because she did not have the right of survivorship, the court held that the right of survivorship or the status of a coparcener was not a requisite for becoming the Karta of a joint Hindu family which she is a part of.
However, the position of women as the Karta of the family was solidified with the landmark judgement by the High Court in Mrs Sujata Sharma vs Shri Manu Gupta (CS (OS) No. 2011/2006). In this case, discrimination against women in the joint Hindu family was questioned. The court resolved that while female members had equal rights in the joint Hindu family property after 2005, they should also have the right to manage the same property as Karta.
It was seen that according to the Section 6 of Hindu Succession Act, after the demise of the father, if the eldest child is a daughter, then she becomes the Karta and is responsible towards the members, which includes the mother and other siblings if any. Hence, married as well as unmarried daughters are the coparceners and may also claim rights to manage the joint Hindu family property as the Karta, provided they are the eldest.
Thus, just like a son can be a Karta by virtue of being born the eldest, a daughter can also be a Karta given that she was the eldest in the family. Also, just like a married daughter retains her right as coparcener, she has the right to be Karta.
Can Hindu Joint family have more than one Karta?
According to Hindu Law, there can only be one Karta. In Union of India vs Sree Ram (AIR 1965 SC 1531), the Supreme Court held that the concept of more than one Karta did not come within the concept of the Karta. There may be two persons who may look after the management of the property as well as the other members of the family, but the joint family is represented only by one Karta. Therefore, there is no scope for two Kartas or two representatives of a joint Hindu family.
Duties and Liabilities of the Karta
A Karta being the manager of the joint Hindu family, has various rights and duties towards the member of the joint Hindu family and its property. Some of these are-
1. Duty or responsibility to Maintain
The family members, as well as the joint Hindu family property. Against this duty, the coparceners have the Right to claim maintenance.
If he fails to do so or excludes any of such members, the Karta can be sued for maintenance and arrears of maintenance by them.
2. Duty to render accounts
Karta is not required to keep accounts when the family remains joint. However, if any coparcener claims for partition, he is liable to maintain an account for the family property.
In the following situations, Karta can be asked to produce the accounts:
- If Karta excludes any member of the family from the enjoyment of the joint Hindu family property.
- Karta fraudulently uses or converts the joint Hindu family property for his purpose or benefit.
- Where there is a special agreement among the coparceners to ask for the account.
3. Duty to realise debts due to the family
It is the duty of the Karta to pay taxes and all the other dues on behalf of the joint family property within a reasonable time. However, he has no right to give up any debt.
Karta is also empowered to settle accounts with debtors and to make reasonable reductions.
4. Duty and liability to spend reasonably
Karta is liable to spend the funds reasonably and only for the benefit of the family.
5. Duty and liability to not alienate coparcenary property
Karta can not alienate the joint Hindu family property if it is not for legal necessity, the benefit of the estate or important due to emergency, without the consent of the coparceners.
6. Liable not to start a new business
Unless the adult coparceners give their consent, either expressly or impliedly, Karta can not start a new business.
7. Duty or liability to compensate
When it is proved misrepresentation or fraudulent t or improper conversion of the property was done by the Karta of the joint Hindu family property then in such case, the Karta will be liable to compensate the other coparceners.
He is responsible for performing the marriages of all the unmarried members, especially of the unmarried daughters.
The Karta can be sued if he fails to perform his duties or obligations.
Powers of the Karta
The Karta has various powers in order to protect and safeguard the interest of the members of the joint Hindu family and its property. The Karta represent the whole family and act on their behalf. He can not be questioned unless charges of misappropriation are made against him. While the Karta discharges many duties towards the family and its benefit, he does so without any reward.
Some of the powers of the Karta is as listed below:-
1. Power of management
The Karta may manage the family affairs, the family property and the business for the benefit of the estate as he pleases. He can also take the necessary steps to promote the family business. No one can question his management.
2. Power over Income
Karta has the power to look into the income and expenditure of the family and is authorised to spend for maintenance, residence, education, marriage and other religious ceremonies of the coparceners and their family. Thus, while Karta has been bestowed this power over income, he can not misappropriate family funds or misapply them for any purpose, not in the interest of the family.
No member can ask for any specified share in the income, as long as the family remains joint. However, if the Katra spends more, then the coparceners can ask for partition.
3. Powers to represent the family
Karta represents the family in all the legal, religious and social matters. He can enter into any transaction on behalf of the family, and his transaction shall be binding on the entire family members.
4. Power to Compromise
Karta has the power too compromised in all disputes relating to the family property or management. However, in cases where he comprises any pending suit or debt, if the act is not bonafide, that is, the Karta is not authorised to act in the matter, then he can be challenged.
5. Power to refer the dispute to arbitration
The Karta has the power to refer any dispute, as he likes, for arbitration. The award by the arbitral tribunal, in this case, shall be binding on all the members of the joint Hindu family. Provided that the intention of the Karta is free from fraud.
6. Power to acknowledge the debt and to contract debt
Karta has the power to acknowledge debt on behalf of the family or debt due to the family. He also has the power to contract debt incurred in the ordinary course of business, and it shall be binding on all the members of the family.
7. Power to enter into a contract
Karta has the power to enter into the contract, which can be enforceable against the family.
This right has been conferred upon the Karta so as to make it possible for him to carry on the family business.
8. Power of Alienation
Conditions for a valid alienation: Alienation means the transfer of property from one person to another by way of sale, gift, lease or mortgage. Only the Karta has the power to alienate the joint Hindu family property but that too with the consent of the other coparceners.
However, there are three instances where the Karta can alienate the property without the consent of the other coparceners; these are:
I. For Legal necessity (Apatkale):
Karta can take the necessary steps for the benefit of the family and the estate. However, if the Karta alienates the property for the same, he has to prove that the alienation of the property was for the satisfaction of such a need.
In Hanuman Prasad vs Mussumat Babooee (6 MIA 393), it was stated that legal necessity includes maintenance of the family, payment of government revenue, marriage, education, expenses of the coparceners and their children or payment of the family debt.
In Basava Raj vs Kushal Chand (AIR 1922 Kant. 393), it was held that an alienation made by the Karta without any legal necessity and without any adequate consideration is not binding on the joint family.
In case of Ammathayee vs Kumaresan (AIR 1967 SC 569), the father, that is, the Karta made a gift of the joint family property to his daughter for her maintenance, and it was held to be valid.
The following was held to be a part of legal necessity-
- Payment of Government Revenue and debts payable out of the family property.
- Maintenance of the coparceners and their family members.
- Marriage expenses of coparceners and daughters of the coparceners.
- Expenses of necessary litigation.
- Costs of defending the head of the family or any other member of the joint family against serious criminal charges.
- Payment of debts incurred for the family business.
- Expenses of argumenting the means of livelihood of the members of the family.
- Cost of building a residential house for the family and expenses for repairing the family house.
- Sale of family property with the object of conveniently adjusting the shares of the rest of the family.
- Sale of the family for migrating to different places for better living.
II. For the benefit to the estate (Kutumbarthe)
Anything done for the benefit of the Hindu joint family property comes under the benefit of the estate. It includes protecting the estate from extinction, deterioration and litigation etc. The test to check its validity is to see what a prudent person would do for his property.
In the case of G. Shiva Kumari v. Indian Overseas Bank (AIR 1978 AP 37), the Karta who was running the hotel business, mortgaged the family property with a view to raise funds for reconstruction and renovation of the hotel building. The High Court of Andhra Pradesh held that the Karta of the common family could mortgage the joint Hindu family property in favour of the estate. However, in doing so, he must act as a prudent owner with the knowledge he has at the time of the transaction.
A manager’s transaction that is neither risky nor speculative, but intended to confer a positive benefit on the family, can be considered to benefit the estate. Thus, the transaction, in this case, was held to be valid.
Thus, the following can be held to be a part of acts done for the benefit of the estate:
- Advantageous acquisition of some property made in the interest of the family.
- Sale of small shares in inferior land in the different village(s) to acquire a compact share in a fertile land in our land.
- A sale of joint family property which is inconveniently situated and is unproductive for the purpose of investing the purchase money in another property which is a sound investment.
- Sale of land situated in an unhealthy place for the purpose of buying land in an advantageous locality.
- A mortgage for the purchase of a residential house which was also used for carrying on the business.
- Sale of the dilapidated house belonging to the family which did not fetch rent and the municipal committee wants to pull it down.
- Sale of property yielding small income and difficult to manage for extension of the existing family.
- Sale of property not yielding any profit in order to purchase land yielding more profit.
- A mortgage for making additions and improvements in the family house.
III. For the performance of indispensable religious duties (Dharamarthe)-
Karta can alienate the joint Hindu family property to discharge religious duties which are religious, pious and charitable, like ‘Shraddha’, that is, the offering of Pindas and Udakas to the manes of the ancestors. He can also gift the property for the same. Thus, Performance of Shraddha, funeral rites or other religious ceremonies of the members of the joint family is a part of the indispensable religious duty.
In Ramalinga vs Siva Chidambara (42 Mad. 440), the Karta made a gift of the coparcenary immovable property to a temple on the occasion of the father’s funeral, which is a pious purpose. The gift was held to be valid.
In Pavitri Devi v. Darbari Singh (1994) BC 126 SC), the Court held that Karta has the absolute power to alienate its undivided interest in the common family. In such cases, the assigned person acquires the right to divide the part of the property and to claim possession of it to the same extent and in the same manner as the one available to Karta.
In the case of Sunil Kumar v. Ram Prasad (1988 AIR 576), the Supreme Court held that when the Karta was selling a joint family property for legal reasons, no third party could restrain him by an injunction. If the seller believes that the sale is not justified, he can challenge its validity after the sale. The court did not cancel the sale simply because the consideration was lean.
Concept of Alienation under Mitakshara and Dayabhaga- Difference
The difference between the Dayabhaga and Mitakshara Schools with reference to the power of alienation invested with the Karta is that in the Dayabhaga School, the Karta must render accounts whenever demanded by any of the coparceners. However, under the Mitakshara Law, Karta must only perform reports in case there are charges of fraud or misappropriation against him.
Power of the Karta to Gift Property
Karta cannot gift away family property unless there is a legal compulsion involved or for religious purposes etc.
Gift of Movable Property
The father or the Karta has the authority to gift ancestral joint family property to the sons, daughters or any other member of the family out of love and affection. The gift can also be in furtherance of indispensable acts of duty towards the family.
Such gifts do have limitations like a Karta can not gift the whole property to one particular member, and it shall not be upheld a gift of affection-
Gift of Immovable Property: The Karta does possess the capacity to gift an individual for pious purposes. In Guramma v. Mallapa (AIR 1964 SC 510), it was held that a father could gift his daughter a portion of immovable property if it is reasonable like for maintenance, while also keeping in view the properties owned by the family. Though, a husband can not gift any such property to his spouse under the clause of pious purposes.
The Gift to Strangers: The Karta only holds the right to gift properties to family members under some conditions and strangers cannot be a recipient of such a gift under no circumstances. Such a gift, if made, shall be deemed to be void ab initio.
Validity of Alienation
If the alienation made by the Karta is unreasonable and not for legal necessity, for the benefit of the estate or the performance of indispensable religious duties, then then it can be challenged and set aside by any other coparcener who has an interest in the property. Thus, alienation is both void and voidable. It is valid until challenged by the coparceners.
However, the burden of proof as to whether the transaction was unlawful and lacked the essential condition as given above lies on the coparcener. The coparcener needs to prove that there was no need for the alienation and that the Karta acted dishonestly.
In case the alienation is void, the coparceners have the following rights:
- Right to Partition
- Right to Menes Profit
- Right to impeach previous alienation
- Right of Joint Possession
The position of Karta who is the manager of a joint family is Sui Generis and cannot be compared with a trustee, agent or partner in a company under any legal system. Neither he is a trustee, who is required to account for past relationships of family ownership. He is an equivalent part of the family as the other members with the same interest in the joint family property. He just has a few special powers bestowed upon him in order to facilitate the management of the family members and its joint property. Also, because he works for the family without any remuneration or reward.
Usually, the right to manage the joint Hindu family rests with the oldest member of the joint family. Still, it may with the consent of other coparceners transfer this right to the next family member.
While various significant powers have bestowed Karta, he can also be challenged to prevent any abuse of power. The law has provided sufficient remedies to the members of the joint family to protect their interests in case the Karta misuses his powers.