Interpreting A Last Will And Testament | Knowing The Wishes
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As the saying goes, there are only two things which are certain in life, death and taxes. As explained by Mison, both constitute a burden, emotional for the former, financial for the latter. However, in reality, we all know emotions affect finances and vice versa. This is a reality, as we’ve seen in the settlement of estate for our deceased loved ones. Succession is a really tricky matter., much less interpreting a last will and testament.

That is why it is a must that the process of succession is properly codified and protected by the State. In this view, the Civil Code structures how succession will be done. In succession, one of the main things that needs to be considered is the will of the deceased. The choice to whom his or her property will be given to, once he or she passes. This will must be given utmost respect as it is the last wish of the absolute owner of the properties to be divided to the heirs.

What is Succession?

Before we go to specifics, first we must define what succession is. As provided by the Civil Code, Succession is a mode of acquiring ownership where the property, transmissible rights, and obligations of a person are transmitted through his death to another or others either by will or by a force of law. It has three kinds, namely testamentary, intestate, or mixed.

Testamentary succession occurs when the will of the decedent as to who inherits his or her properties is executed though a “Will” as provided by law. In its absence, the law proceeds to transfer the decedent’s property with the presumption of his or her wishes. On the other hand, mixed succession can be had when it is done partly by will and partly by operation of law.

Testamentary Succession | What is a Will?

Let’s talk about Testamentary Succession, as the article which this paper covers are part of Testamentary succession. What is a will? As provided by the Civil Code, to viz:

A will is an act whereby a person is permitted, with the formalities prescribed by law, to control to a certain degree the disposition of his estate, to take effect after his death.[1]Article 783, Civil Code

The making of a will is a strictly personal act; it cannot be left in whole or in part to the discretion of a third person, or accomplished through the instrumentality of an agent or attorney.”[2]Article 784, Civil Code

What is the significance of a Last Will?

As can be gleaned from the aforecited provisions, a will is an act to control to a certain degree, the disposition of the decedent’s estate to take effect after his death. It is also provided that the same is strictly personal and cannot be accomplished through another.

This is important because the validity of one’s will is determined by the way his will is executed. If one’s testament is not made in accordance with the law, it may be declared invalid. That is why people always seek the guidance of lawyers in drafting their will. So that they can be sure that their desires as to who receives what is protected and properly executed in their will.

Control over the property after death

According to Page, a will is a disposition made by a competent testator in the form prescribed by law, of property over which he has a legal power of disposition, which disposition is of such nature as to take effect after his death.[3]Page on Wills, Vol. I, p.4.

As we can see, this law is crafted in order to give the person the right to have a certain degree of control for the disposition of any property that he or she has before he or she passes. This gives the owner the final exercise of his/hers jus dispodendi right over his or her property.

Complication in Last Will

Now, a will can be complicated because it takes effect after the death of the executor. Meaning, if ever there is confusion as to the true desire of the decedent which the will does not clearly show, no one can attest as to that matter. That is why provisions on the interpretation of wills are crafted.

As enunciated by the Supreme Court in the case of Alonso Q. Ancheta vs. Candelaria Guersey – Dalaygon,[4]G.R. No. 139868, June 08, 2006 to wit:

“Men wished to speak after they were dead and the law, by the creation of that instrument, permitted them to do so x x x All doubts must be resolved in favor of the testator having meant what he said”.[5]Ibid.

This is further protected by the fact that Wills are of a personal character. The law prohibits the delegation in whole or in part to the discretion of another person even with the cloth of agent or attorney.

Interpreting a Last Will and Testament

For Articles 791 and 792, the same deals with the interpretation of the words of a will and its invalidity. As provided by the Civil code:

The words of a will are to receive an interpretation which will give to every expression some effect, rather than one which will render any of the expressions inoperative; and of two modes of interpreting a will, that is to be preferred which will prevent intestacy.[6]Article 791, Civil Code

The invalidity of one of several dispositions contained in a will does not result in the invalidity of the other dispositions, unless it is to be presumed that the testator would not have made such other dispositions if the first invalid disposition had not been made.”[7]Article 792, Civil Code

The main purpose of these provisions is to ensure that the real intention of the testator will be the controlling factor in the disposition of his or her assets. These laws obligate the Courts to carry out such will and give effect to the same. Article 791 of the Civil Code gives us the preference of Testacy over Intestacy.

What are these two? A testate estate means that the decedent left a will, which disposes of his or her property. An intestate estate means that the decedent did not leave a will and the probate court will determine the distribution of his or her property to heirs according to a priority statute.[8]What is the difference between a testate and intestate estate?

This preference have been again and again subject of cases decided by the Honorable Supreme Court. In the case Dolores Hacbang and Bernardo Hacbang vs. Atty. Basilio Alo[9]G.R. No. 191031, October 05, 2015 where the court determined whether or not the transfer of property to his brother, which is not in accordance to his Ultima Voluntad y Testamento, should be upheld as valid after being questioned by the other surviving heirs. In this case, the Honorable Supreme Court enunciated that, to wit:

“Our jurisdiction accords great respect to the testator’s freedom of disposition. Hence, testate succession has always been preferred over intestacy. As much as possible, a testator’s will is treated and interpreted in a way that would render all of its provisions operative. Hence, there is no basis to apply the provisions on intestacy when testate succession evidently applies”[10]Ibid.

These statutes are important for the protection of the will of the deceased. As we all know, after a person dies, most of the time, if the deceased has left a substantial amount of property their family members, more often than not, they get into disputes as to whom the decedent’s property will go to.

These disputes if not settled extrajudicially will land in courts in order to adjudicate the controversy, and finally, to determine the true will of the decedent. However, even if great respect and value is given to the will of the decedent, it is still required that, for the will to be controlling, it needs to abide by the rule on its validity.

As what happened in the case of In re: Will and Testament of the deceased Reverend Sancho Abadia. Severina A. Vda. De Enriquez, et al. vs. Miguel Abadia, et al.,[11]G.R. No. L-7188 August 9, 1954 where the court ruled upon the validity of a questioned will. Here, the court explained that:

“Of course, there is the view that the intention of the testator should be the ruling and controlling factor and that all adequate remedies and interpretations should be resorted to in order to carry out said intention, and that when statutes passed after the execution of the will and after the death of the testator lessen the formalities required by law for the execution of wills, said subsequent statutes should be applied so as to validate wills defectively executed according to the law in force at the time of execution.[12]Ibid.

“However, we should not forget that from the day of the death of the testator, if he leaves a will, the title of the legatees and devisees under it becomes a vested right, protected under the due process clause of the constitution against a subsequent change in the statute adding new legal requirements of execution of wills which would invalidate such a will.[13]Ibid.

“By parity of reasoning, when one executes a will which is invalid for failure to observe and follow the legal requirements at the time of its execution then upon his death he should be regarded and declared as having died intestate, and his heirs will then inherit by intestate succession, and no subsequent law with more liberal requirements or which dispenses with such requirements as to execution should be allowed to validate a defective will and thereby divest the heirs of their vested rights in the estate by intestate succession.”[14]Ibid.

Final Thoughts

All told, the duties of a lawyer guiding people in drafting their wills are important. A mistake in its execution is going to be fatal to the wishes of the decedent and is going to result in a dispute to the disposition of his or her property. As legal professionals, we must ensure that our clients, especially those crafting their last will and testament is properly informed and guided so that their choice is protected.

Incidentally, while the testator can control the disposition of his estate after his death, through a valid last will and testament, his wishes must yield to the presence of legitime in his properties which are to be disposed of upon his demise. This is allocated and reserved by law to his compulsory heirs.

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RALB Law | RABR & Associates Law Firm

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