Is it always necessary for an heir to institute an inheritance case in Court before she can exercise legal rights to a property which she inherited? Must some Court declare her to be an heir before she can file a case to protect the inherited property? Is it a prerequisite that the estate of one who died should first be settled in Court, with the heirs identified and declared, before an heir can assert rights over the property?
A prior inheritance case is not always necessary for the Courts to recognized an heir’s rights to a property. This is particularly so in the case of a compulsory heir. The legal rights of a compulsory heir are transmitted to her at the moment of the decedent’s death by operation of law.
The Courts have recognized this in the case of RAYMUNDO vs. VDA. DE SUAREZ, G.R. No. 149017, November 28, 2008. In this case, a father had died leaving behind his wife and children. Land which had belonged to the father was then sold to pay for a debt of his widow. The children later attacked the sale as invalid because they not been party to it.
The Supreme Court decided in the children’s favor. It ruled that the sale was invalid to the extent that it included the children’s share of the land. The buyers could only have bought the share of the mother, not that the children. The rights of the children as compulsory heirs of their father were upheld in order to annul the sale of property they owned as an inheritance from their father.
The Supreme Court rejected the buyer’s argument that the compulsory heirs had no right to their father’s property until after they were first declared to be heirs in a separate, special proceeding instituted for that purpose. The Supreme Court ruled, rather, that a compulsory heir’s rights to succession vest upon him from the moment of the decedent’s death.
Raymundo vs. Vda. De Suarez is an intergenerational snarl of legal disputes which entangles a mess of issues, but one passage is striking as we tease out its implications:
[The buyers] became owners of the subject properties only by virtue of an execution sale to recover [the mother] Teofista’s judgment obligation. This judgment obligation is solely Teofista’s, and payment therefor cannot be made through an execution sale of properties not absolutely owned by her. These properties were evidently conjugal properties and were, in fact, even titled in the name of Marcelo, Sr. married to Teofista. Thus, upon Marcelo Sr.’s death, by virtue of compulsory succession, Marcelo Sr.’s share in the conjugal partnership was transmitted by operation of law to his compulsory heirs.
Compulsory succession is a distinct kind of succession, albeit not categorized as such in Article 778 of the Civil Code. It reserves a portion of the net estate of the decedent in favor of certain heirs, or group of heirs, or combination of heirs, prevailing over all kinds of succession. The portion that is so reserved is the legitime. Article 886 of the Civil Code defines legitime as “that part of the testator’s property which he cannot dispose of because the law has reserved it for certain heirs who are, therefore, called compulsory heirs.” Herein respondents are primary compulsory heirs, excluding secondary compulsory heirs, and preferred over concurring compulsory heirs in the distribution of the decedent’s estate.
Even without delving into the Extrajudicial Settlement of Marcelo Sr.’s estate in 1957, it must be stressed that herein respondents’ rights to the succession vested from the moment of their father’s death. Herein respondents’ ownership of the subject properties is no longer inchoate; it became absolute upon Marcelo’s death, although their respective shares therein remained pro indiviso. Ineluctably, at the time the subject properties were sold on execution sale to answer for Teofista’s judgment obligation, the inclusion of herein respondents’ share therein was null and void.
On a parent’s death, a compulsory heir’s part in the ownership of the property is transmitted to her not by virtue of a special judicial proceeding, but by operation of law. A daughter, for example, is a compulsory heir. Upon her father’s death, the daughter’s ownership is not inchoate. It becomes absolute although her share remained pro indiviso. This vests in her rights such as to sue for the protection of her rights and for the annulment of an invalid sale of her property.
Compulsory heirs need not file a separate special proceeding to be declared heirs in order for them to have the legal personality to file a case in defense of their property rights. The Supreme Court affirmed that the very civil action itself — say a case for the cancellation of the sale of property — can be the proper forum for a determination of the compulsory heirs’ right to file suit.
The Supreme Court affirmed this thread in Abarientos vs. Spouses Galvez, G.R. No. 204029, June 4, 2014 and in Heirs of Basbas vs. Basbas, G.R. No. 188773, September 10, 2014.
Citing earlier cases, Abarientos discussed this pragmatic doctrine thus:
It has indeed been ruled that the declaration of heirship must be made in a special proceeding, not in an independent civil action. However, this Court had likewise held that recourse to administration proceedings to determine who heirs are is sanctioned only if there is a good and compelling reason for such recourse. Hence, the Court had allowed exceptions to the rule requiring administration proceedings as when the parties in the civil case already presented their evidence regarding the issue of heirship, and the RTC had consequently rendered judgment upon the issues it defined during the pre-trial.
x x x
[To] still subject [the estate], under the circumstances of the case, to a special proceeding which could be long, hence, not expeditious, just to establish the status of petitioners as heirs is not only impractical; it is burdensome to the estate with the costs and expenses of an administration proceeding. And it is superfluous in light of the fact that the parties to the civil case – subject of the present case, could and had already in fact presented evidence before the trial court which assumed jurisdiction over the case upon the issues it defined during pre-trial.
In fine, under the circumstances of the present case, there being no compelling reason to still subject Portugal’s estate to administration proceedings since a determination of petitioners’ status as heirs could be achieved in the civil case filed by petitioners, the trial court should proceed to evaluate the evidence presented by the parties during the trial and render a decision thereon upon the issues it defined during pre-trial x x x. (emphasis supplied)
The Supreme Court ruled that in such a situation, where the status of the heir can already be resolved, it is simply more practical to dispense with the separate special proceeding to determine that status.