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Supreme Court tackles inheritance rights as illegitimate children outnumber legitimate

The Court on Tuesday started hearing oral arguments on a case asking if an illegitimate child, whose father died before she was born, may inherit from her paternal grandfather considering she was "openly and publicly" recognized by the family before the clan patriarch died.

Article 992 of the New Civil Code prohibits an illegitimate child from inheriting from the legitimate children and relatives of his father or mother, and prohibits legitimate children or relatives from inheriting from the illegitimate child.

The discussion is happening when data from the Philippine Statistics Authority shows that 53.3% of children born in 2017, the latest available, were born out of wedlock, most of them in Calabarzon, the National Capital Region, and Central Luzon. Illegitimate children made up 49.2% of total registered live births in 2016 and 52.1% in 2015.

For University of the Philippines law professor Elizabeth Aguiling-Pangalangan, who showed the 2017 figures to the justices, said the numbers indicate that "legal and societal disadvantages suffered by illegitimate children have not sufficiently deterred unmarried couples from creating them."

"Therefore, Article 992 of the Civil Code and other provisions such as Art. 175 of the Family Code that deny illegitimate children rights merely because of their status does not achieve any state interest and is inconsistent with our treaty obligation," she told Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando.

For her part, former Ateneo De Manila University law school dean Cynthia del Castillo suggested that the legal distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children is "several decades long overdue" and "irrelevant" in 2019.

She said Art. 992 can be considered "unreasonable," "inconsistent," and possibly leading to an "absurd situation," and "unconstitutional." The United States Supreme Court, she said, has struck down laws that distinguished between marital and non-marital children in several cases.

To illustrate the "unfairness" of the law, she said the law may favor the illegitimate child of an illegitimate child in case a person who has both an illegitimate and a legitimate child  — who in turn each have an illegitimate child of their own  — dies.

"If it can be struck down as unconstitutional on the basis of the fact that there is no substantial distinction, it really is going to be something that favors not only the illegitimate children, but the legitimate children as well," Del Castillo said, noting that trend is "changing" in other parts of the world.

When Hernando asked if it was safe to assume that illegitimate children outnumbering legitimate ones reflects a more accepting society, Pangalangan said 21st century Philippines is more open-minded, but that stigma towards children born out of wedlock remains.

Pangalangan and Del Castillo were appointed as amicus curiae, or non-parties to the case called upon for their expertise. Oral arguments will resume on Sept. 17.

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