Succession of tenants made clearer under Rent Act

By Vistasp Adil Irani, Vidhii Partners
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Tenancy rights have always been considered a valuable property right, often leading to disputes on the death of a tenant and raising questions as to who qualifies as a member of the tenant’s family to be entitled to inherit the tenancy rights of premises from the deceased tenant.

Vistasp-Adil-Irani-Vidhii-Partners
Vistasp Adil Irani
Associate
Vidhii Partners

In Maharashtra, tenancy rights are regulated under the Maharashtra Rent Control Act, 1999, which repealed the Bombay Rents, Hotel and Lodging Houses Rates Control Act, 1947.

Rent control legislation has been primarily undertaken to save tenants from the harassment tactics of unscrupulous landlords and to curb the avarice of the landlords and normalize their relations with the tenants.

Upon the death of the tenant, the question arises of who shall inherit the tenancy rights of the tenanted premises? Which member of the family shall qualify as the successor to the tenancy rights?

Section 7 (15)(d) of the 1999 act states that a member of a tenant’s family who has been residing with the deceased tenant at the time of his/her death shall qualify first from the family as the successor to inherit the tenancy.

From a reading of this section, it is clear that the right to tenancy on the death of a tenant is extended to the members of the family who were particularly participants in the benefits of the tenancy, and were residing with the deceased tenant in the tenanted premises, or continuously operating the premises for commercial purposes, as the case may be, often excluding legal heirs who would otherwise be entitled to the same. Only when such a member or members are not available, will other legal heirs come into the picture, and the court must then decide in such cases who is to be treated as the tenant.

Therefore, succession to tenancy rights under the 1999 act is a clear departure from the general rules of succession laws, as heirs who would normally qualify as successors under the succession laws may not qualify as heirs to the tenancy rights under the 1999 act.

In the case of Vasant Pratap Pandit v Anant Trimbak Sabnis (1994) the Supreme Court, while dealing with the provisions of the Bombay Rents, Hotel and Lodging Houses Rates Control Act, 1947, held that that testamentary succession is not possible, as the statutory tenancy rights are personal to the tenant and hence a tenant cannot bequeath his tenancy rights by a testamentary document.

Priority is always to be given to the family member who resided along with the deceased tenant. “If the word ‘heir’ is to be interpreted to include a ‘legatee’, even a stranger may have to be inducted as a tenant, as there would be no embargo upon a stranger being a legatee”; the Supreme Court held in the same judgment that the word ‘heir’ would be confined to only members of the family, and introducing testamentary succession and including a restrictive meaning would not be accepted.

Succession in premises protected under the 1999 act can only be inherited by family members. The Bombay High Court, in the case of Jaysen Jayant Rele & Ors v Shantaram Ganpat Gujar & Ors (2002), held that the word “family” of the deceased tenant did not part with the ordinary meaning of the word “family” as held in common parlance, and included family as consisting of father, mother, sons, daughters and all such blood relations and other relations arising from lawful marriages.

It was held that the act protects only those who were really blood relations of the family. Further, the definition of “resides” as per the judgment given by Bombay High Court under the 1999 act in the case of Dharmvir Joshi v Jayant Patwardhan (2015) was construed to be something that is more than a temporary stay. The character of residence is adopted, and such residence must be permanent in nature.

Thus, succession to tenancy rights is based on possession and enjoyment of tenancy rights of a family member who has resided with the deceased tenant. Therefore the ‘heir’ who wishes to claim tenancy rights of the deceased tenant must prove that he/she was permanently residing with the deceased tenant at the time of his/her death. Only such an “heir” will get priority over all other members of the family with respect to the inheritance of such tenancy rights over the premises.

Vistasp Adil Irani is an associate at Vidhii Partners.

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