Probate and the court’s jurisdiction

By Mary Jude Cantorias Marvel

As a law student, and later as a lawyer, I have often heard the phrase “there are only two things that are certain in life: death and taxes.” And it turns out, where death takes place, tax is hot on death’s heels (that is, if the decedent leaves behind a sizeable estate to his heirs). A decedent who dies with a last will and testament, without having the same admitted to probate during his lifetime, leaves an obligation upon his heirs to have that will and testament admitted to probate. What then is probate? Where does one file a petition for probate? Does the non-adversarial process of mediation apply in case of a probate petition? If so, who acts as mediator and what happens if the mediation process fails? As an ADR advocate, I am particularly interested in the use of mediation in this instance.


Jurisdiction of the probate court

A probate proceeding is a special proceeding to establish the validity of a will. Probate is mandatory, i.e., no will shall pass either real or personal property unless it is proved and allowed in accordance with the Rules of Court. (Art. 838, Civil Code) A petition for probate is filed with the appropriate Regional Trial Court (RTC) of the place where the testator resided at the time of his death, say RTC of Bacolod City. Once raffled, the petition shall be assigned to a regular RTC that will then assume the office of a probate court. This point is significant in that the court sitting as a probate court must limit itself to determining only the issue of the due execution of the will and settle the formal or extrinsic validity of the will (as opposed to intrinsic validity), i.e. whether the testator, being of sound mind, freely executed the will in accordance with the formalities required by law. (Remedial Law Compendium, Florenz D. Regalado, Tenth Revised Edition (2004), citing Pastor et.al. v. CA, et.al., GR No. 56340, June 24, 1983)

Otherwise stated, the probate proceedings deal generally with the extrinsic validity of the will sought to be probated, particularly on three aspects: (i) whether the will submitted is indeed, the decedent’s last will and testament; (ii) compliance with the prescribed formalities for the execution of wills; (iii) the testamentary capacity of the testator; (iv) and the due execution of the last will and testament. (Lourdes L. Dorotheo v. Court of Appeals, Nilda D. Quintana, et.al., G.R. No. 108581. December 8, 1999)

Under the Civil Code, due execution includes a determination of whether the testator was of sound and disposing mind at the time of its execution, that he had freely executed the will and was not acting under duress, fraud, menace or undue influence and that the will is genuine and not a forgery, that he was of the proper testamentary age and that he is a person not expressly prohibited by law from making a will. (Articles 796-798 of the Civil Code)

Thus, when the RTC sits as a probate court, the general rule (this means there are exceptional cases when the probate court also addresses issues relating to the intrinsic validity of the will, but these exceptions will not be discussed here) is that the jurisdiction of the trial court, either as a probate or an intestate court (where the decedent dies without a last will and testament), relates only to matters having to do with the probate of the will and/or settlement of the estate of a deceased person, and does not extend to the determination of other questions such as ownership (of assets forming part of the estate) that may arise during the proceedings. The patent rationale for this rule is that such court merely exercises special and limited jurisdiction (Eduardo G. Agtarap v. Sebastian Agtarap, et. al., G.R. No. 177099, June 8, 2011). For this reason, matters of filiation (of any of the purported heirs), for instance, cannot be assailed or proven before the probate court.

It must also be stressed that the probate court is not a family court (as jurisdiction is exclusive and must be as laid down by law). Under Republic Act No. 8369, family courts have jurisdiction only over the following matters:

  1. Criminal cases where one or more of the accused is below eighteen (18) years of age but not less than nine (9) years of age or where one or more of the victims is a minor at the time of the commission of the offence. Provided, That if the minor is found guilty, the court shall promulgate sentence and ascertain any civil liability which the accused may have incurred;
  2. Petitions for guardianship, custody of children, habeas corpus in relation to the latter;
  3. Petitions for adoption of children and the revocation thereof;
  4. Complaints for annulment of marriage, declaration of nullity of marriage and those relating to marital status and property relations of husband and wife or those living together under different status and agreements, and petitions for dissolution of conjugal partnership of gains;
  5. Petitions for support and/or acknowledgment;
  6. Summary judicial proceedings brought under the provisions of Executive Order No. 209, otherwise known as the “Family Code of the Philippines”;
  7. Petitions for declaration of status of children as abandoned, dependent or neglected children, petitions for voluntary or involuntary commitment of children; the suspension, termination, or restoration of parental authority and other cases cognizable under Presidential Decree No. 603, Executive Order No. 56, (Series of 1986), and other related laws;
  8. Petitions for the constitution of the family home;
  9. Cases against minors cognizable under the Dangerous Drugs Act, as amended;
  10. Violations of Republic Act No. 7610, otherwise known as the “Special Protection of Children Against Child Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act,” as amended by Republic Act No. 7658; and
  11. Cases of domestic violence against women and children.


On the issue of mediation

Although as a general rule civil actions are subject to court-annexed mediation at the first level, probate proceedings may be subject to mediation only on appeal, when the “losing” or “aggrieved” party appeals the decision of the probate court to the Court of Appeals. Pursuant to A·M. No, 11-1-6-SC-PHILJA, January 11, 2011, the Consolidated and Revised Guideline to Implement Expanded Coverage of Court Annexed Mediation and Judicial Dispute Resolution, “all civil cases and probate proceedings, testate and intestate, brought on appeal from the exclusive and original jurisdiction granted to the first level courts under Section 33, par. (1) of the Judiciary Reorganization Act of 1980, may be subject to Appellate Court Mediation.” This is not automatic, however, and is still subject to the discretion of the appellate court. The Division Clerk of Court, with the assistance of the PMC-CA, identifies the pending cases for mediation to be approved by the Ponente (Justice in charge of the case) either for completion of records or for decision. The petitioner or appellant specifies, by writing or by stamping on the right side of the caption of the initial pleading (under the case number), that the case is qualified for mediation. If the case is eligible for mediation, the Ponente, with the concurrence of the other members of the Division, refers the case to the PMC-CA (Philippine Mediation Center-Court of Appeals).

The mediation proceedings shall then be conducted by a court-approved appellate mediator, chosen by the parties from among a roster of Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA) accredited mediators. If the case is chosen for mediation and the mediation fails, the court of appeals will decide the matter based on any pleadings submitted to it in support or in opposition to the appeal. The appellate court does not conduct trial but in some rare cases may allow oral arguments by counsels.


Conclusion

In sum, when a petition for probate is brought before the RTC, it sits as a probate court and not as a family court, the jurisdiction of which is limited to cases falling under the provisions of Republic Act No. 8369. On the other hand, as a probate court, the RTC exercises special and limited jurisdiction, primarily determining the due execution of a will. Mediation for probate cases takes place at the appellate level, i.e. the party unsatisfied with the ruling of the trial court appeals the decision to the Court of Appeals. And even then, submission to mediation is not automatic but subject to the approval of the Ponente, with the concurrence of the other members of the Division of the Court. Finally, in the event the case is referred to mediation, and the mediation fails, the Court will then rule on the case just like it would in any regular action brought before it.

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