Inheritance Laws for Christian Women in India

  • By Sebastian Paul
  • March 30, 2022
  • Dr Sebastian Paul provides answers to some commonly asked questions on Inheritance laws for Indian Christian Women. 

Q1. Which inheritance laws are applicable to Christian women in India?

A1. Indian Christians are governed by the Indian Succession Act of 1925 in matters of intestate and testamentary succession. Prior to the enactment of this legislation, there were many laws applicable to Christians in different parts of India. Christians in Goa were following the Portuguese civil code. Intestate succession of Christians in Travancore was governed by the provisions of the Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916. In Cochin intestate succession was regulated by the Cochin Christian Succession Act of 1921. In the province of Malabar succession was regulated by the Indian Succession Act of 1925.


The Indian Succession Act, which replaced the Act of 1856, did not confine to intestate succession but also to cases of testamentary succession. The Act exempts Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains from its purview. It was made applicable to Indian Christians. The Supreme Court ruled in Mary Roy and others v. State of Kerala (AIR 1986 SC 1011) that with the coming into force of Part B States (Laws) Act, the Travancore Succession Act stood repealed and Christians in Travancore area are to be governed by the Indian Succession Act. The same is applicable to Christians in Cochin also. The Supreme Court noticed that Part B States (Laws) Act was enacted with a view to bringing about uniformity of legislations in the whole of India.


Q2. In post independent India who frames or modifies the state laws?

A2. Legislative competence is determined on the basis of the three lists in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Intestacy and succession are included as Item 5 in the Concurrent List. This means both the Union and States have legislative power in the matter but a union law will prevail over the state law.


Q3. What about Customs?

A3.   No custom shall be allowed to overrule the provisions of a duly enacted statute. Where a case is clearly governed by the Indian Succession Act, courts are bound to give effect to the rules of succession contained in the Act, and are not competent to accept custom (e.g., a custom excluding females from inheritance).


Q4.  Are the above laws applicable to all Christian women across India?

A4.   Section 3 of the Indian Succession Act gives power to a State Government to exempt any race, sect or tribe from the operation of the Act. Native Christians in the Province of Coorg is one such exempted category.


Q5. Who is a Christian under the Laws?

A5.   Section 2(d) of Indian Succession Act defines an Indian Christian as a native of India who is, or in good faith claims to be, of unmixed Asiatic descent and who professes any form of the Christian religion. A Christian in general terms is a person who has received Christian baptism or is a believer in Christianity whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.


Q6. Does Christian law draw from its religious book, the Holy Bible and is it codified?

A6. There is no codified Christian law based on the Bible or any other religious book.


Q7. Do Cannon Laws play any role in deciding the inheritance of ancestral or father’s property, by Christian women?

A7.  Canon is a Church decree or law which has no role in deciding the inheritance of ancestral or paternal property by Christian women. Canons of the Catholic Church recognise equality. They do not deal with property rights and share of inheritance.


Q8. For simplicity, what are Canon Laws?

A8.  Canon law is ecclesiastical law especially that laid down by papal pronouncements. It has limited or restricted application in the temporal life of a Christian. If a marriage is to be solemnised in a Christian church, rules and procedure prescribed by canon law may have to be followed. In the matter of inheritance and other temporal matters, canon law has no application.


Q9. Who lays down Canon laws? 

A9.  Canon law is law of the Church, laid down by an ecclesiastical council. It is administered by the Curia. This Roman Catholic court of justice is headed by the bishop of a diocese at the local level and by the Pope at the Vatican.


Q10. Are there any restrictions on percentage of property that can be executed in a Will?

A10.  There is no such restriction. After the amendment of section 213(2) of the Indian Succession Act in 2002 a Christian Will does not require probate or letters of administration for giving effect to the provisions of the will.


Q11. If a Christian widow has no children will she inherit 100% of her husband’s property?

A11. Section 33A was inserted in the Act as early as in 1926 as a special provision where intestate has left widow and no lineal descendants. But it is not applicable to Indian Christians.


Q12. If a Christian widow has children, say 2, what percentage of her husband’s shall she inherit?

A12.  The Indian Succession Act 1925 was aimed at consolidating the Indian law relating to testamentary and intestate succession. Section 32 of the Act recognizes the Christian widow as one of the heirs to succeed to the properties of her deceased husband dying intestate.


Q13. In a Christian family, if there are three inheritors i.e. Mother, Daughter and Son what percentage of the father’s property shall go to the Daughter? (assuming the father has left no written Will)

A13.   All other succession laws stand repealed with the coming into force of Part B States (Laws) Act. This was reiterated by the Supreme Court in Mary Roy’s case. Accordingly, Christian son and daughter are held entitled to equal share in their parent’s property. There is no law in force which disqualifies a Christian daughter to inherit her parents on the ground that she was paid streedhana at the time of her marriage.


Author Dr Sebastian Paul is a former Member of Parliament and lawyer practicing in the High Court of Kerala. eSamskriti is grateful to Dr Paul for providing answers, amidst a busy schedule. 

Also read

1. Inheritance Laws for Hindu Women

2. Comparing Inheritance Laws for Hindu and Muslim women

3. Women Property Rights in India- International Journal of Creative Research Thoughts, Volume 6, Issue 1, January 2018.

4. Useful article on Christian Inheritance Law 


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