Ownerless property is unknown to law: HC

An ownerless property is unknown to law. The moment the heartbeat of a person stops, the ownership of his/her estate gets transferred to the successor without any break, the Madras High Court said on Wednesday. It directed the Chennai Collector to hand over the keys of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence Veda Nilayam to her nephew J. Deepak and niece J. Deepa within three weeks.

Justice N. Seshasayee made it clear that the Income Tax Department would be free to proceed to recover any tax arrears, payable by Jayalalithaa, which were chargeable on her estate as per law.

After delivery of the verdict, Advocate-General R. Shunmugasundaram brought it to the notice of the court that a Bengaluru special court, which convicted Jayalalithaa in a disproportionate assets case, had ordered confiscation of a portion of Veda Nilayam.

The Advocate-General said the special court’s verdict was confirmed by the Supreme Court and wanted to know whether the judge had made any reference to it in his judgment. Justice Seshasayee replied that he had confined his decision to the validity of the acquisition proceedings initiated by the government. All other issues would be left open to be decided in accordance with law.

The judge rejected the question of maintainability raised by the previous AIADMK Government about the writ petitions filed by Mr. Deepak and Ms. Deepa on the ground that they were declared legal heirs by a Division Bench of the High Court only on May 27, 2020, whereas the acquisition proceedings were initiated much earlier.

Pointing out that Jayalalithaa died intestate and Mr. Deepak and Ms. Deepa were her only legal heirs as per the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, the judge said the Division Bench had only declared their status legally on a particular date. Just because it took time to make such a declaration, it would not mean that the property was lying ownerless from the moment Jayalalithaa breathed her last till the declaration was made.

“Where a property possesses an inherent character to outlive the death of the person who has held the right over it, then that right cannot exist in a vacuum. It is here that the law on inheritance or succession of rights comes in… They provide the rules to identify the person for vesting of ownership,” the judge said. He pointed out that if there were no legal heirs at all, the property would vest with the State.

“The next point is about ascertaining the moment when ownership disappears in a dead person and re-appears in the successors-in-interest of the deceased. The answer is uncomplicated: It happens the moment the owner dies,” the judge added.

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