This is one of the most important provisions in the Law on Succession. “The rights to the succession is transmitted from the moment of the death of the decedent.”1
In the Philippines, family plays the vital role wherein Filipinos are well-known for having firm and loving relationship to their families. Accordingly, they place a high value on the survival of their businesses, properties, and other possessions, especially in terms of who will manage them in the future.
By way of illustration, Juan had ten (10) motorcycles. A question will arise sooner or later such as when and who will inherent the said properties of Juan. Can the heirs, devisee, or legatee possess the subject properties when Juan is still alive?
Transfers of rights and property, by virtue of one’s death, from one person to another are governed by succession. It is possible to transfer assets, liabilities, and rights both during the decedent’s life and after his or her passing. In this post, we’ll talk about the crucial detail of when succession will occur.
Following the death of the decedent, the majority of problems, such as when and how the succession of properties will be smoothly achieved, fall on the heirs of the decedent. When immediate family members are involved and another person with a different connection to the decedent is appointed as administrator, some members of the families experience significant conflict.
To them, they may be ignorant how the succession laws will apply, more so, if there is a will. The final point is how important it is to understand when successional rights are transmitted. A person inherits assets after the decedent dies. They are automatically transferred to an heir upon the decedent’s death. This is how Filipinos think.
To meet the requirement of “death of the decedent,” however, fraudulent scheme or act may be created on rare occasions in order to gain the estate in quick and early acquisition. One might wonder why the reckoning period for succession to take effect is death. What role does death play in succession?
The rights to the succession are transmitted from the moment of the death of the decedent.
It is correct to state that successional rights are transferred upon the death of the decedent under Article 777 of the New Civil Code of the Philippines. Furthermore, numerous legal and jurisprudential rules support that death is the operative fact that transfers the rights to succession.
In the case of Carlos Gabila vs. Pablo Perez, et. al.,2 the Supreme Court explained that as soon as the predecessor dies, the heirs, devisee, or legatees will receive the rights to the succession. Thus:
The defendants-appellees, as the only legal heirs of their father, the deceased Mariano Perez, became the owners of the property in question upon his demise. The rights to the succession were transmitted to them from the moment of his death.3
As a result, following the decedent’s demise, the latter’s estate will axiomatically pass to his heirs. In order for the succession to take place, death is a condition sine qua non.
In Bonilla, et al. vs. Barcena, et al.,4 the Court held that:
“[F]rom the moment of the death of the decedent, the heirs become the absolute owners of his property, subject to the rights and obligations of the decedent, x x x [t]he right of the heirs to the property of the deceased vests in them even before judicial declaration of their being heirs in the testate or intestate proceedings.”5
In the case of Treyes, vs. Larlar, et al.,6, the High Court stresses that:
“In fact, in partition cases, even before the property is judicially partitioned, the heirs are already deemed co-owners of the property. Thus, in partition cases, the heirs are deemed real parties in interest without a prior separate judicial determination of their heirship. Similarly, in the summary settlement of estates, the heirs may undertake the extrajudicial settlement of the estate of the decedent amongst themselves through the execution of a public instrument even without a prior declaration in a separate judicial proceeding that they are the heirs of the decedent.83 If there is only one legal heir, the document usually executed is an affidavit of self-adjudication even without a prior judicial declaration of heirship.”7
“Death opens the door for succession.” No declaration is necessary once the decedent has died for the heirs, devisee, or legatees to be given the right to succeed.
An heir should not be required to initially establish successional rights in an ordinary civil action intended just to safeguard his or her interests in the estate before declaring heirship in a special proceeding. Therefore, death of the decedent is the only requirement that must be met.
The deceased person’s death must have actually occurred or be presumed to have actually occurred, and the transferee must be alive, conscious, willing, and able to accept the rights and obligations of inheritance. Additionally, rights may be transferable.
What is actual death?
Actual death automatically transfer the rights of succession to the transferee. According to Republic Act [RA] No. 7170,8 death is defined as “the irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions or the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.”9
In the case of Spouses Salitico vs. Heirs of Resurreccion Martinez Felix, 10 the Supreme Court ruled that according to Article 777, the transmission by succession occurs at the precise moment of death. Thus, the heir’s, devisee’s or legatee’s legal right to receive his or her portion of the inheritance is already deemed to have taken place.
“Article 777 of the Civil Code, which is substantive law, states that the rights of the inheritance are transmitted from the moment of the death of the decedent. Article 777 operates at the very moment of the decedent’s death meaning that the transmission by succession occurs at the precise moment of death and, therefore, at that precise time, the heir is already legally deemed to have acquired ownership of his/her share in the inheritance, “and not at the time of declaration of heirs, or partition, or distribution.” Thus, there is no legal bar to an heir disposing of his/her hereditary share immediately after such death.”11
In order to give substance to the heirs’ rights and obligations with regard to the decedent’s assets, Article 777 establishes a reckoning point that is consistent with the maxim that “law, like nature, abhors a vacuum.”
On the occasion of the death of the decedent, no conditions and explanations shall be made by the heirs to exercise their rights to succession. This is made apparent by the terms of Article 777 of the Civil Code of the Philippines. In layman’s term, no further talks.
This means that further debates about it are not allowed once the prerequisites of ownership and possession of the successor following the decedent’s death have been fulfilled. The exercise of the transferee’s successional rights must, therefore, proceed without interruption. As soon as the decedent passes away, the heirs take ownership of the property and are free to sell, dispose of, or do whatever they like with it.
It is further explained in the case of Testate Estate of Josefa Tangco, et al. vs. Tasiana vda. De De Borja,12 wherein there is a dispute between the child of the first wife and the second wife with regards to the properties of the first wife, where the husband died as administrator thereof. The issue is whether a compromise agreement is valid pending probate of the will.
The Supreme Court ruled that compromise agreement is valid even the probate of will is still pending. In accordance to Article 777 of the Civil Code of the Philippines, the hereditary share in a decedent’s estate was immediately transferred from the moment of the decedent’s death. Hence:
“The clear object of the contract was merely the conveyance by Tasiana Ongsingco of any and all her individual share and interest, actual or eventual in the estate of Francisco de Borja and Josefa Tangco. There is no stipulation as to any other claimant, creditor or legatee. And as a hereditary share in a decedent’s estate is transmitted or vested immediately from the moment of the death of such causante or predecessor in interest (Civil Code of the Philippines, Art. 777).”13
Consequently, there is no legal bar upon the heirs, devisees, or legatees’ ability to dispose of their hereditary share immediately following the decedent’s death, even if the precise amount of their share has not yet been determined after the estate has been liquidated.14
Presumably, such alienation must be limited to what is ultimately given to the heir, devisee, or legatees.15 Succession transfers the ownership, not the delivery. By doing so, we will also go back to the terms of Article 777. Perforce, rights of succession validly acquired from the moment the death of decedent occurs.
Presumptive Death | Only a Rule of Evidence
In the actual death, there is clear understanding to when the rights of succession be made effectively upon the moment of cessation of the body parts and functions of a person. However, there is also called a presumptive death.
The absence of a person for an extended or predetermined period of time was also recognized by the law as affecting succession. The average person might not be aware of this presumed death or may not be aware of how it occurred in the event of inheritance.
For purposes of settlement of his estate, a person shall be presumed dead if absent and unheard from for the periods fixed in the Civil Code. But if such person proves to be alive, he shall be entitled to the balance of his estate after payment of all his debts. The balance may be recovered by motion in the same proceeding.16
The provisions of the New Civil Code that govern the presumptive death are as follows:
Art. 390. After an absence of seven years, it being unknown whether or not the absentee still lives, he shall be presumed dead for all purposes, except for those of succession.17
The absentee shall not be presumed dead for the purpose of opening his succession till after an absence of ten years. If he disappeared after the age of seventy-five years, an absence of five years shall be sufficient in order that his succession may be opened.18
Art. 391. The following shall be presumed dead for all purposes, including the division of the estate among the heirs:19
- A person on board a vessel lost during a sea voyage, or an aeroplane which is missing, who has not been heard of for four years since the loss of the vessel or aeroplane;20
- A person in the armed forces who has taken part in war, and has been missing for four years;21
- A person who has been in danger of death under other circumstances and his existence has not been known for four years.22
Articles 390 and 391 define two (2) types of presumed death. Article 390 addresses ordinary presumptive death, whereas Article 391 provides for unusual presumptive death. These two provisions of law specify various time frames for transmitting successional rights. The absence is only presumed to be because of death. However, this assumption is only provisional since the absentee may still be alive, albeit presumed dead as of the moment owing to absence.
It is only a declaration of presumption, not declaring the absentee died or when the absentee died. Subsequently, when the absent person appears and wants to recover the property, rights, or obligations that have been to his or her heirs, the absentee, who reappears, can still recover the same. When the decedent is not present, family members frequently argue over who should own the decedent’s belongings.
It was explained, in the case of Estrellita Tadeo-Matias vs. Republic of the Philippines,23 that an action brought only to declare a person presumed dead under either of the Articles 390 and 391 of the Civil Code of the Philippines actually provides no actual controversy that a court may determine. The aforementioned articles are merely express rules of evidence. The High Court went on to state that:
The rule invoked by the latter is merely one of evidence which permits the court to presume that a person is dead after the fact that such person had been unheard from in seven years had been established. This presumption may arise and be invoked and made in a case, either in an action or in a special proceeding, which is tried or heard by, and submitted for decision to, a competent court. Independently of such an action or special proceeding, the presumption of death cannot be invoked, nor can it be made the subject of an action or special proceeding. In this case, there is no right to be enforced nor is there a remedy prayed for by the petitioner against her absent husband.24
There would be no real rights to defend, no wrongs to right, and no status to form in such a situation. Therefore, by defining a specific length of absence, the law has already established the presumption of death.
In Gue vs. Republic of the Philippines,25 the Supreme Court ruled that even if a final and executory judicial declaration of presumed death is made in the case of a person who has gone unheard for a period of time specified by the aforementioned provisions, it will only be a prima facie assumption. Thus:
The philosophy behind the ruling that such judicial pronouncement cannot be made in a proceeding of this nature is well expressed in the case above-cited. Thus, we there said that “A judicial pronouncement to that effect, even if final and executory, would still be a prima facie presumption only.26
It is still disputable. It is for that reason that it cannot be the subject of a judicial pronouncement or declaration, if it is the only question or matter involved in a case, or upon which a competent court has to pass .. It is, therefore, clear that a judicial declaration that a person is presumptively dead, because he had been unheard from in seven years, being a presumption juris tantum only, subject to contrary proof, cannot reach the stage of finality or become final.”27
Article 777 of the New Civil Code of the Philippines is the primary provisions that provides the reckoning point of the succession to be made effective, thus, it is also in connection to the other provisions of the New Civil Code of the Philippines such as Article 533 and 1042.
Art. 533. The possession of hereditary property is deemed transmitted to the heir without interruption and from the moment of the death of the decedent, in case the inheritance is accepted.28
One who validly renounces an inheritance is deemed never to have possessed the same.29
Art. 1042. The effects of the acceptance or repudiation shall always retroact to the moment of the death of the decedent.30
Acceptance is another circumstance in the transmission of successional rights specified under Articles 533 and 1042 of the New Civil Code. Such acceptance will retroact to the date of the decedent’s death, as well as the refusal of an heir.
From the moment of the death of decedent, the ownership of the estate passes to his or her heir. However, on the occasion of the undivided portion of the estate, co-ownership arises to the decedent’s heir. Consequently, if one of co-owner died, he or she will be substituted by his or her heir, devisee or legatee.
In the case of Maria Vda. De Reyes, et. al., vs. CA,31 the Supreme Court held that co-ownership by the heirs would be held in the estate of the decedent. A co-heir or co-owner may validly dispose of his share or interest in the property provided that upon termination of the co- ownership, subject to the requirement that the portion disposed of is eventually awarded to him in the division.
“But even if We are to assume arguendo that the oral partition executed in 1936 was not valid for some reason or another, We would still arrive at the same conclusion for upon the death of Gavino Reyes in 1921, his heirs automatically became co-owners of his 70-hectare parcel of land. The rights to the succession are transmitted from the moment of death of the decedent.32
“The estate of the decedent would then be held in co-ownership by the heirs. The co-heir or co-owner may validly dispose of his share or interest in the property subject to the condition that the portion disposed of is eventually allotted to him in the division upon termination of the co-ownership.”33
To reach a conclusion, consider the example from the beginning of this article, in which Juan’s heir will inherit his ten (10) motorcycles at the time of his death. As a result, succession becomes effective after the decedent died. Whether or not a will is present, the right thereto passes to the heirs, devisee, or legatee as soon as the cessation of decedent’s life occurs.
- Article 777, Civil Code
- G.R. No. 29541, Jan. 27, 1989
- G.R. No. L-41715, June 18, 1976
- G.R. No. 232579, September 08, 2020
- RA 7170
- G.R. No. 240199, April 10, 2019
- G.R. No. L-28040, August 18, 1972
- Section 4, Rule 73 of the Rules of Court
- Article 390, Civil Code
- Article 391, Civil Code
- G.R. No. 230751, April 25, 2018
- G.R. No. L-14058, March 24, 1960
- Article 533, Civil Code
- Article 1042, Civil Code
- G.R. No. 92436, July 26, 1991