Mansi Tyagi, is a student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune. In this article, she has discussed the rules and principles concerning the position and powers of a Karta in a Hindu undivided family. Also, she has tried explaining the gender lacunas of the system. And in conclusion, she has tried engraving the gaps that need to be filled in the Karta system of the Hindus.
Hindu Undivided Family
Before knowing who a Karta is, we need to know what a Hindu undivided family stands for. The Hindu undivided family is considered a unique composition in the world since it continues even after the members are dead. A HUF consists of “all-male members descending lineally from a common male ancestor together with their mothers, wives or widows, unmarried daughters and even illegitimate children“[i]. Also, even though the Hindu Undivided Family does not have a legal existence, it is a recognized taxation unit.
Who is a Karta?
Under Mitakshara coparcenary, the coparcenary is limited to three generations of “Lineal Male descendants”. This coparcenary system is headed by the senior-most male member, earlier called the patriarch, and now termed as the ‘KARTA’ under the Hindu joint family.[ii] A Karta is made not based on selection by consent of the other family members, but by the rule of seniority.[iii] Thus, not anybody or everybody can be a Karta on his own.
Legal Position of a Karta
The position of a Karta is sui generis.[iv] He is responsible to take care of the family and manage all the property related matters with due care. His relationship with the members is neither of an agent-principal[v], nor even of partners, but that of a trustee. However, only in cases of mala fide intentions can the decision of the Karta be challenged[vi]; otherwise, he does not hold any accountability to anyone personally.
The HUF has no legal identity, and thus it’s representative the Karta takes steps in his capacity to ensure the maintenance of the same. Therefore, the acts done by the Karta concerning the HUF are absolutely binding on all the members. He is thus justified in buying property, suing someone, or taking loans, or compromising on behalf of the HUF.
Who can be a Karta?
Generally, the senior-most male member of the family is the Karta of a joint Hindu family, in whose absence the next senior-most male member takes position. Also, no member but only a coparcener can become a Karta. Seniority and not consent is the factor to be the Karta of the family. However, a Karta can himself expressly resign or relinquish his position. But this doesn’t make his position temporary in any manner. He can never be disposed of on the ground of him being ill or unable to take care of family matters.
Can a Junior member be a Karta?
In the presence of a senior male member, a junior can never be a Karta, except where the Karta is absent and the junior is selected with the consent of the other family members. However, in no condition can a junior member assume superiority over the senior male member.
What are the conditions in which the juniors can take over was answered in the infamous case of ‘Nopany Investments (P) Ltd. v. Santokh Singh (HUF)[vii]’. In the said case, a Karta residing outside India, gave his power of attorney to younger brother, who under the authority transferred evicted the tenants out of the family property to which the tenants refused on the ground that the younger brother was not the Karta and thus could not evict them.
To this, the Hon’ble Supreme Court dismissed the tenants’ contentions and laid down five principles (conditions) where a junior could take over as the Karta. They are as follows:
- if the senior member or the Karta is not available;
- where the Karta relinquishes his right expressly or by necessary implication;
- in the absence of the manager in exceptional and extraordinary circumstances such as distress or calamity affecting the whole family and for supporting the family;
- in the absence of the father:
(a) whose whereabouts were not known, or
(b) who was away in a remote place due to compelling circumstances and his return within a reasonable time was unlikely or not anticipated.[viii]
After this judgment, it was laid down that once a junior member was made the new Karta or the representative of the Karta, he could take decisions on behalf of the family in the same capacity as the original Karta, and which were binding equally on the other coparceners. Also, to this taking over, outsiders cannot take objection in any situation.
Can Female members be a Karta?
Property and related laws, since time unknown, have always been male-centric and hardly treated women as independent and not subservient. The coparcenary is limited to three generations of lineal male descendants of the last holder of the property only. A wife under Hindu law has a right of maintenance out of her husband’s property, yet she is not a coparcener with him.[ix] A woman in a Hindu family was a mere dependent and could be nothing more.
The foremost discussion upon the status of Women as a coparcener was made in the parliamentary debates of the constituent assembly. While debating about the Hindu succession Code, it was originally decided to do away with the mitakshara coparcenary system. The idea was to abolish the son’s right by birth for inheritance and replace the same with the principle of succession. The conservative opinion suppressed the idea. The Madhya Bharat representative, Sita Ram S Jajoo, in fact, went on to state his reasons for the majority opposing the idea, i.e., “Here we feel the pinch because it touches our pockets. We male members of this house are in a huge majority. I do not wish that the tyranny of the majority may be imposed on the minority, the female members of this house.[x]” Thus, the same was rejected at the instance of the majority rejecting the acceptance of woman coparceners.
Thus, women in a Hindu joint family cannot be coparceners[xi], since it is assumed that the females invariably leave the father’s house and assume domestic and spiritual duties in their husband’s house. A wife though, under Hindu law has a right of maintenance out of her husband’s property yet she is not a coparcener with him.[xii] Likewise, a widow of a deceased coparcener is not a coparcener, and therefore cannot be treated as a Karta of the family. However, the 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act[xiii] has given a daughter the status of a coparcener; their position as a Karta is still inadmissible.
However, there are conditions when a woman can behest the position of a Karta. For example, in general, if the only adult male coparcener dies and there is no other male coparcener available at the instance or the one available is a minor, the duties of the Karta fall upon the woman of the house. In such conditions, she can be a manager as well a Karta for the Hindu undivided family, until and unless the minor male coparcener turns major, after which she gets dissolved of her Karta position. The reasoning behind such law is that women are not inherently coparceners in the property, and can enjoy their deceased husbands’ property to a limited extent.
What is important to note here is, a woman can be a manager but not the Karta. And thus, it is necessary to distinguish between the same. The position of a Hindu widow cannot get self-assumed by her disentitlement to be a coparcener in the Hindu Undivided Family of her husband. Regrettably, the amendment of the Hindu Succession Act in 2005 has not done much to appreciate the position of a woman in the Hindu Undivided Family. In the infamous cases like ‘Sujata Sharma v. Manu Gupta’[xiv] and ‘Shreya Vidyarthi v. Ashok Vidyarthi’[xv] the high courts and the Hon’ble Supreme Court respectively have held that daughters having equal coparcenary rights can be made the Karta irrespective of their marital status. However, other female members still await given equal Karta rights in a Hindu undivided family.
Powers of the Karta
Karta enjoys an immensely wide variety of powers when it comes to his position of managing all the family matters. His powers have a wider ambit than those of anyone else in the family. His position is honourable and unique. However, the powers vested in the position of the Karta are open to scrutiny only on the ground of prudence, “and prudence implies caution as well as foresight and excludes hasty, reckless and arbitrary conduct”[xvi]. The powers of any Karta include:
1. Power of Management
A Karta is the manager of all family matters, thus making his powers absolute as far as management of the same is concerned.[xvii] Under Hindu law, a Karta has the power and duty to take actions which binds the family together. A Karta can ask the family members to give him all the accounts of the expenditure of family income. He has the power to manage the family income and property[xviii]. The coparceners are bound to obey the Karta, in whose absence the Karta can outcast the coparcener of the common property. In such cases, the coparcener has no remedy but to ask for separation of his share and live separately from the joint family. Also, the Karta has the power to distribute resources amongst the member coparceners at his whims and fancies. He is under no obligation to be impartial to all the members. Instead, he can play favouritism and yet be out of any legal consequences against him. As far as the disposition of any contracts, sale of family property or expenditure of joint income is concerned, neither the members nor the court can direct the Karta to act in a certain way or another. It is the inherent managing power of the Karta to act on his terms.
2. Right of Representation
Under the Hindu Law, the Karta of a Hindu joint family represents all the members of the family. For all formal, informal and even legal matters, it is the Karta in whose name all the proceedings shall take place. It is for this reason that the suits filed by and against the HUF are named in the representative capacity of the Karta.
Also, the judgment given in such suits is binding on all the members of the family, irrespective of their age.[xix] Also, since the Karta is not answerable to the actions he takes in pursuance of the management of family affairs, thus in such representative suits, neither can he be held responsible for being negligent towards the proceedings,[xx] nor can the judgment be set aside because if at all he was more vigilant the outcome would be in their favour.[xxi] However as held in the case of ‘Mirthubasini v. Easwaramurthy and Ors.’[xxii], it is concluded that “as the head and ‘karta’ of a joint family, one has absolute power to represent his joint family”.
3. Power of receiving and spending family income
All members of the family working outside the family property are under the obligation to hand over their income collectively to the Karta. The Karta in lieu of his managerial duties has the right of collection and expenditure of the family income wherever he feels it deeming fit for. The Karta is not obligated to spend the funds in a certain manner. Also, it is through the Karta that funds are allotted to members as well as activities of the HUF.
4. Power of Alienation
Usually, the power of the Karta to alienate is limited and can be executed with the consent of other coparceners. However, there are three purposes for which if the alienation is made by the Karta, the transaction is held to be valid. These being, Legal necessity, the benefit of estate or religious obligations.[xxiii]
In the case of ‘Radhakrishnadas v. Kaluram’[xxiv] the Hon’ble Supreme court laid down five principles of valid alienation by Karta, which consisted of the following:
- Powers of Karta are limited and qualified;
- Karta makes alienation as a prudent man or a bona fide alignee;
- Alignee bound to make a proper inquiry into borrowings of money;
- Alignee needs to prove that the transaction was for a legal necessity;
- Alignee is not obligated to prove that all the considerations paid to him were used for family maintenance or management.
However, in cases where the Karta alienates the property without the consent of the other coparceners, the act can be challenged in the court of law. Thus, any alienation made by the Karta is voidable at the option of any coparcener, provided that the burden of proof lies on the person who bought the property and not the Karta.
5. Liability to take accounts
Usually, the Karta is not bound to disclose any accounts on how and where he spent the joint income. Since his actions are presumed to be made in the best interests of the HUF, a justification for his actions is deemed unnecessary. However, at the time of partition, he is supposed to discharge all valid accounts, which if found to be glitched will be reimbursed from the personal accounts of the Karta.
6. Power to Acknowledge and contract debts
Being the representative and manager of the HUF, the Karta has absolute power to acknowledge and contract the debts taken and given either by any member of the family or him personally on behalf of the family. Also, he has the power to pay off such debts and interests taken on behalf of the HUF. As far as the contracts are concerned, once taken by the Karta on behalf of the HUF, it becomes absolutely binding on the other coparceners.
7. Power to settle family disputes
In case there is an inter-family dispute or a conflict between an outsider and any family member, the Karta has the power to refer such matters for arbitration, and the subsequent decision becomes binding on all the members.[xxv] Also, the Karta can take the initiative to settle the matter through a compromise on behalf of the members. He can also compromise a suit pending in court.
However, in such compromises, a minor member can challenge the same under Rule 7 of Order XXXII which requires the approval of the court in compromises where one of the parties consists of a minor. Also, in cases where the Karta does not work bonafidely, it can be challenged during partition proceedings by the aggrieved coparcener.
Duties and Liabilities of a Karta
Despite the wide range of powers that the Karta enjoys, there are certain liabilities and duties that he is bound by. The foremost and uncompromisable responsibility being managing the family matters bona fidely in best interests of all the coparceners. Also, A Karta is liable for maintaining all the family members, females of the family and even illegitimate children. In case of a default, a civil suit can be filed against the Karta by the female members of the family. At times of partition, he is liable to render accounts asked for by the coparcener. A Karta is also responsible for the execution of events like marriage, religious sacraments, etc. in the family. Since he is the ‘manager’ of the family property, he is also liable to make sure that all dues, taxes, loans, and debts are paid well off. Also, being the legal representative of the whole HUF, he is responsible to take care of all the litigations filed by and against the family. Including everything, the prima facie duty of the Karta is to ensure total security, safety and maintenance of the family.
The senior-most male member of the family gets the status of a Karta, the head, the manager of the family affairs. For this, he may or may not receive a remuneration. But he does enjoy several powers owing to his honorable position in the family and is also at the same time responsible for the maintenance of the same. In the complex Hindu family system, the role of a Karta proves to be a simplifying factor in the direction of managing the Hindu undivided family more efficiently
However, in the whole law including the Karta, the exclusion of women is yet a milestone to be achieved. Merely making them Coparceners but not giving them the right to be a Karta is an utter violation of their right to equality. Also, the powers given to the Karta concerning the family property needs a delusion, in aspects where it keeps him non-accountable to the members for his partial actions. There still needs to be an evolution in the laws and principles relating to the working of a Karta. But till then, the changes await.
[i] Surjit Lal Chhabda v. CIT, (1975) 101 ITR 776.
[ii] Narendra Kumar J. Modi v. CIT, 1976 SC 1953.
[iii] Jasoda Sundari v. Lal Mohan Basu, AIR 1926 Cal 361.
[iv] Family Law Lectures, Dr. Poonam Pradhan Saxena, LexisNexis 4th ed. Pg 149-150.
[v] Kandasami Askari v. Radhe Ram Singh, (1912) ILR 35 Mad 177.ch
[vi] Pritam Singh v. Ujgar Singh, (1878) 1 All 651.
[vii] Nopany Investments (P) Ltd. v. Santokh Singh (HUF), (2008) 2 SCC 728.
[viii] Nopany Investments (P) Ltd. v. Santokh Singh (HUF), (2008) 2 SCC 728.w
[ix] Sabitri Thakurain v. FA Savi, AIR 1933 Pat 306.
[x] The Constituent Assembly of India (Legislative) Debates Vol.VI 1949 Part II.
[xi] Comm. of Income Tax v. Govinda Ram Sugar Mills, AIR 1996 SC 240.
[xii] Punna Bibi v. Radha Kissen, (1904) ILR 31 Cal 476.
[xiii] Hindu Succession (State Amendment) Acts, 2005.
[xiv] Sujata Sharma v. Manu Gupta, 2010 SCC OnLine Del 506.s
[xv] Shreya Vidyarthi v. Ashok Vidyarthi, (2015) 16 SCC 46.
[xvi] Subhodkumar and Ors. v. Bhagwant Namdeorao Mehetre and Ors., AIR 2007 SC 1324.
[xvii] Bhaskaran v. Bhaskaran, (1908) ILR Mad 318.
[xviii] Sarda Prasad and Ors. vs. Lala Jumna Prasad and Ors. AIR 1961 SC 1074.
[xix] Rajayya v. Singa Reddy, AIR 1956 Hyd 200.
[xx] C.S.K Krishnamurthy v. Chidambaram Chettiyar, (1946) ILR Mad 670.
[xxi] Gurbasappa v. Vankat, AIR 1956 Hyd 146.
[xxii] Mirthubasini v. Easwaramurthy and Ors., 2011 SCC OnLine Mad 1077.
[xxiii] VVV Ramarajju v. Korada Malleshwar Rao, (1999) 2 HLR 257 (AP).
[xxiv] Radhakrishnadas v. Kaluram, (1963) 1 SCR 648.
[xxv] Jagan Nath v. Mannu Lal, (1894) ILR 16 All 231.
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