What is the true legal position in the matter of proof of wills?

 Proof of wills 

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 is to be proved, we must inevitably refer to the statutory provisions which govern the proof of documents. Sections 67 and 68, Evidence Act are relevant for this purpose. Under S. 67, if a document is alleged to be signed by any person, the signature of the said person must be proved to be in his handwriting, and for proving such a handwriting under Ss. 45 and 47 of the Act the opinions of experts and of persons acquainted with the handwriting of the person concerned are made relevant. Section 68 deals with the proof of the execution of the document required by law to be attested; and it provides that such a document shall not be used as evidence until one attesting witness at least has been called for the purpose of proving its execution. These provisions prescribe the requirements and the nature of proof which must be satisfied by the party who relies on a document in a Court of law.

Similarly, Ss. 59 and 63 of the Indian Succession Act are also relevant. Section 59 provides that every person of sound mind, not being a minor, may dispose of his property by will and the three illustrations to this section indicate what is meant by the expression “a person of sound mind” in the context. Section 63 requires that the testator shall sign or affix his mark to the will or it shall be signed by some other person in his presence and by his direction and that the signature or mark shall be so made that it shall appear that it was intended thereby to give effect to the writing as a will. This section also requires that the will shall be attested by two or more witnesses as prescribed. Thus the question as to whether the will set up by the propounder is proved to be the last will of the testator has to be decided in the light of these provisions. Has the testator signed the will ? Did he understand the nature and effect of the dispositions in the will ? 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 prescribe by S. 63 of the Indian Succession Act. As in the case of proof of other documents so in the case of proof of wills it would be idle to expect proof with mathematical certainty. The test to be applied would be the usual test of the satisfaction of the prudent mind in such matters.

However, there is one important feature which distinguishes wills from other documents. Unlike other documents the will speaks from the death of the testator, and so, when it is propounded or produced before a Court, the testator who has already departed the world cannot say whether it is his will or not; and this aspect naturally introduces an element of solemnity in the decision of the question as to whether the document propounded is proved to be the last will and testament of the departed testator. Even so, in dealing with the proof of wills the Court will start on the same enquiry as in the case of the proof of documents. The propounder would be called upon to show by satisfactory evidence that the will was signed by the testator, that the testator at the relevant time was in a sound and disposing state of mind, that he understood the nature and effect of the dispositions and put his signature to the document of his own free will. 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 suspicions circumstances. The alleged signature of the testator may be very shaky and doubtful and evidence in support of the propounder’s case that the signature in question is the signature of the testator may not remove the doubt created by the appearance of the signature; the condition of the testator’s mind may appear to be very feeble and debilitated; and evidence adduced may not succeed in removing the legitimate doubt as to the mental capacity of the testator; the dispositions made in the will may appear to be unnatural, improbable or unfair in the light of relevant circumstances; or, the will may otherwise indicate that the said dispositions may not be the result of the testator’s free will and mind. 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.

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. It is in connection with wills that present such suspicious circumstances that decisions of English Courts often mention the test of the satisfaction of judicial conscience. It may be that the reference to judicial conscience in this connection is a heritage from similar observations made by ecclesiastical Courts in England when they exercised jurisdiction with reference to wills; but any objection to the use of the word ‘conscience’ in this context would, in our opinion, be purely technical and academic, if not pedantic. 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 it 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. It is hardly necessary to add that the result of the application of these two general and broad principles would always depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case and on the nature and quality of the evidence adduced by the parties. It is quite true that, as observed by Lord Du Parcq in Harmes vs. Hinkson, 50 Cal W N 895:

“where a will is charged with suspicion, the rules enjoin a reasonable scepticism, not an obdurate persistence in disbelief. They do not demand from the Judge, even in circumstances of grave suspicion, a resolute and impenetrable incredulity. He is never required to close his mind to the truth,” It would sound platitudinous to say so, but it is nevertheless true that in discovering truth even in such cases the judicial mind must always be open though vigilent, cautious and circumspect.

H. Venkatachala Iyengar-AIR 1959 SC 443 : (1959) 1 Suppl. SCR 426

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