Property is an essential asset of a person’s life owned during and after his lifetime. Property is acquired for various purposes like shelter requirement, investment or financial security. Property can be self-acquired i.e. purchased with a person’s own money or it can be ancestral, i.e. property of the ancestors inherited by the successors. These rules of Inheritance and Succession in India in the domain of Hindu personal law are governed by the Hindu Succession Act of 1956. According to Section 2, this Act is applicable to any person who is Hindu by religion or any of its forms or developments, any person who is a Buddhist, Sikh, or Jain by religion and any other person who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi, Jew, unless it is proved that such person would not be governed by any Hindu law or custom. This Act lays down a comprehensive and uniform system which combines all aspects of Hindu Succession. It also extensively deals and explains the concept of legal heirs and their classification.
Meaning and Definition of Legal Heir
Heir is a popular word used in our day-to-day lives. In layman terms, an heir is a person who is legally entitled to collect an inheritance when the deceased person did not formalize a will and testament. By and large, heirs who inherit the property of a deceased person are his children, his descendants, or his other close relatives. It is important to note that the concept of an heir varies from one religion to another. This is also why their property rights in the deceased person’s property might also vary depending on the religion they come from. The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 comprehensively deals with the concept of legal heirs and specifies who all are entitled to the property of a deceased person.
Section 3(1) (f) of the Act defines ‘heir’. According to the Section, an ‘heir’ is any male or female person, who is entitled to receive the property of the intestate.
Section 3(1) (g) of the Act defines ‘intestate’. It is stated that a person is deemed to die ‘intestate’ in respect of the property of which he/she has not made a testamentary disposition capable of taking effect. In simple words, when a person dies without leaving behind a valid will, it is known as intestate.
Further, Section 3(1) (a) of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 defines the term ‘agnate’. According to the section, a person is said to be an agnate of another if the two are related by blood or by adoption wholly through the males.
Section 3(1) (c) of the Act defines the term ‘cognate’. A person is said to be a cognate of another if such a person is related to the other by blood or through adoption but not wholly through males.
Succession of Property
Succession, generally speaking is the act or process of inheriting a title or property of a person. The law of succession is largely based upon the legal principle regarding the distribution of assets of a deceased person. These principles include the order of preference of succession of the assets. Succession can be of the following two types:
When the succession of the property is governed by a testament or a will, then it is called testamentary succession. Under Hindu personal law, a Hindu male or female can make a will for the distribution of property in favor of anyone, including that of a share in the undivided Mitakshara coparcenary property. In this case, the distribution will be under the provisions of the will. Such a will should be valid and legally enforceable. In a case where the will is not valid or is not legally enforceable, then the property of the deceased will devolve through the laws of inheritance.
As defined in Section 3(1) (g) of the Hindu Succession Act, intestate is when a person dies without making any will saying how the property is to be distributed after his death. In this case, property of the deceased individual will devolve through the laws of inheritance. This is called as Intestate Succession. The distribution of assets in this case is based on the personal laws that apply to the deceased person. Intestate Succession is also followed in cases where the will or testament left behind a person is invalid or is not legally enforceable.
Classification of Heirs 
Legal heirs under this Act are classified into the following four categories:
Class I heirs-
Sons, Daughters, Widows, Mothers, Sons of a predeceased son, Widows of a predeceased son, Son of a predeceased son of a predeceased son, Widows of a predeceased son of a predeceased son, Daughter of a predeceased son, Daughter of a predeceased daughter, Daughter of a predeceased son of a predeceased son, Son of a predeceased daughter, Daughter of a predeceased daughter of a predeceased daughter, Son of a predeceased daughter, Son of a predeceased daughter of a predeceased daughter, Daughter of a predeceased daughter of a predeceased son, Daughter of a predeceased son of a predeceased daughter.
Class II heirs-
Father, Son’s Daughter’s son, Son’s daughter’s daughter, Brother, Sister, Daughter’s son’s son, daughter’s son’s daughter, daughter’s daughter’s son, daughter’s daughter’s daughter, Brother’s son, sister’s son, brother’s daughter, sister’s daughter, Father’s father, father’s mother, Father’s widow, brother’s widow, Father’s brother, father’s sister, Mother’s father, mother’s mother, Mother’s brother, mother’s sister.
Class III heirs (Agnates) –
A person is said to be an agnate of another if the two are related by blood or by adoption wholly through the males. Also, an agnate can be a male or female.
Rules of preference between agnates:
- Here, each generation is referred to as a degree. The first degree is the intestate.
- Degrees of ascent are ancestral or in upwards direction.
- Degrees of descent are those of the descendants or in downwards direction.
- In case an agnate has both the ascent and descent degrees, each of them has to be considered separately.
- It is important to note that an agnate having descent degree will be preferred over the one having ascent degree.
- In case two agnates have ascent and descent degrees, the one having lesser number of ascent degrees will be preferred over the other.
Class IV heirs (Cognates) –
A person is said to be a cognate of another if such a person is related to the other by blood or through adoption but not wholly through males. A cognate is someone who is related to the intestate through mixed relatives in terms of sex.
Son- Here, the expression ‘son’ can include both a natural born son and adopted son. But it does not include an illegitimate son or a stepson. In Kanagavalli v. Saroja , it was held that a son who is born of a void or voidable marriage that is declared to be annulled by the Court, will be a legitimate child thus, he would inherit the property of his father.
Daughter- Here, the expression ‘daughter’ includes both a natural born daughter and adopted daughter. But it does not include an illegitimate daughter or a stepdaughter. The daughter who is born of a void or voidable marriage that is declared to be annulled by the Court, will be a legitimate child thus, she would inherit the property of his father. The share of a daughter in his father’s property is equal to that of a son.
Widow- A widow will get a share that is equal to the share of the son. If there are more than one widow, they will collectively take a share equal to that of the son and will further equally divide it among themselves.
Rules for succession in the case of males
Section 8 of the Act prescribes the general rules of succession in the case of males. This Section is applicable to the property of a male Hindu dying intestate. Following is the procedure of devolving of estate of the deceased according to the provisions:
- Upon the heirs belonging to Class I
- If there is no heir of class I, then upon the heirs belonging to Class II.
- If there is no heir of any of the two classes I or II, then upon the agnates of the deceased or heirs of Class III
- If there is no agnate, then upon the cognates of the deceased or Class IV
Rules for succession in the case of females
Under the Act, women aren’t just a ‘limited owner’ but have the right of ownership of property. Through the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005,  daughters are entitled to an equal share as that of the son in the property. In Vineeta Sharma v. Rakesh Sharma , it was held that the daughter shall remain a coparcener throughout the life, irrespective of her father being alive or not.
In case a female Hindu dies intestate, the property shall devolve upon:
- Son, daughters and the husband
- Heirs of the husband
- Mother and father
- Heirs of the father
- Heirs of the mother
It is important to note that in the absence of her son or daughter, any property inherited by the Hindu female:
- From her parents shall devolve on the heirs of the father.
- From her husband or her father-in-law shall devolve on the heirs of the husband.
In India, the laws relating to inheritance and succession in India is very vast and varies according to the religions. Under the Hindu personal law, the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 governs the concepts of Inheritance and Succession. It also deals with the concept of legal heirs and lays down its classification and order of preference. Heirs are persons upon whom property of the deceased devolves. If a Hindu dies intestate, there are four classes of heirs laid down for succession. Further, daughters have been granted right of equal share in the property.
 ‘Rights of legal heirs and property inheritance law in India’, (NRI LEGAL SERVICES BLOG)
 THE HINDU SUCCESSION ACT, 1956
 Julia Kagan, ‘What Is an Heir?’ (INVESTOPEDIA, 21 September 2022)
 Ishaan Banerjee, ‘The Hindu Succession Act, 1956’ (IPLEADERS ONLINE BLOG, 26 February 2020)
 Kanagavalli v. Saroja AIR 2002 Mad 73
 THE HINDU SUCCESSION (AMENDMENT) ACT, 2005
 Vineeta Sharma v. Rakesh Sharma, (2020) 9 SCC 1
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