One of the most difficult legal problems for lawyers to solve is a bitter war among brothers and sisters on inheritance. This has been my experience in my almost 30 years as a trial attorney.
Parents who pass on wealth to their children may be under the impression that they will leave this world with material blessings bestowed on their children. But the intended blessing may morph into a curse that causes unending quarrels among offspring.
There have been several high-profile cases of wealthy families mired in acrimonious legal battles over inheritance in the past few years. The nastiest of these cases involve the family of the late Marcos crony Potenciano Ilusorio, where criminal accusations of kidnapping, false imprisonment, parricide and extortion were filed between two warring factions of his children.
But inheritance wars are not unique to wealthy families. Even children of modest families, whose sole asset is the family home, are not immune from vicious conflicts over inheritance rights.
When one reads the law on inheritance, the rules are crystal-clear on how to divide a deceased parent’s assets among the heirs. Of the total joint assets of the parents, one-half is retained by the surviving spouse as his or her conjugal share. The other half will constitute the estate of the dead spouse that will be inherited by his or her heirs.
The estate of the deceased parent will be further divided into two: one-half is considered as the “legitime,” while the other half is deemed the “free portion.” The legitime will constitute the mandatory inheritance of the children. The free portion is the part of the estate that a parent can freely give to any person (even nonrelatives) or institution, by providing so in a “Last Will and Testament” or deed of donation.
There are situations when the free portion becomes less than half of the estate. This happens when there is a surviving spouse and/or illegitimate children who are also entitled to their own legitimes, and which will be taken from the free portion.
The surviving spouse and legitimate children are entitled to equal amounts of legitime. An illegitimate child is entitled to half of the share of a legitimate child.
If the law is clear in apportioning inheritance rights, why do conflicts still arise among heirs? Unfortunately, emotional issues cannot be solved by the mathematical solutions provided by law. Distressed emotions cloud an heir’s objectivity and sense of fairness. Conflicts among children arise because of unresolved bitterness, envious feelings, sentiments of unfairness, or selfishness.
Some children harbor feelings of inequality because one or more of their siblings received extra support from parents in terms of more expensive education, sizeable medical expenses, travels and even financial support for a costly wedding. Another sibling may feel that the lesser fortune he or she has achieved in life should be compensated by a bigger inheritance share. And a black sheep sibling may just be so brazenly greedy that he or she wants to claim the bulk of the estate.
The law provides that expenses for support, education, extraordinary illness and even wedding gifts given by parents are not generally deductible from a child’s inheritance share. But the law also provides that these bequests of parental generosity may still be deductible, first from the free portion, and second from the legitime share of a child, if the amount is disproportionately substantial compared to the estate size.
The cold letters of the law on inheritance do not automatically provide an inheritance distribution formula that is guaranteed to satisfy all the heirs. The heirs must infuse the cold letters of the law with a warm sense of fairness, equity and justice.
The moral lesson here is that it is not enough for parents to bestow material blessings on their children. Most importantly, they must bequeath to their children the life-affirming traits of empathy, fairmindedness, moral uprightness and enduring love for each other.
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