“There are no illegitimate children. There are only illegitimate parents.”
These words reverberated in my ears as I read the news that the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the rights of an illegitimate child in an interesting case.
The quoted words belong to retired judge Ulysses Butuyan, my uncle, under whose wings I honed my legal skills when I worked as an intern in his law firm during summers in my student days. He has a penchant for applying common-sense reasoning and out-of-the-box arguments in his oral and written articulations. He abhorred the practice of parroting Supreme Court decisions, delighting instead in crafting his own folksy reasoning, even after he joined the judiciary. I owe my inclination for unconventional thinking largely to him.
The case that will be heard by the Supreme Court involves Maria (not her real name), who was born out of wedlock and whose father died before Maria was born. Because of her father’s untimely death, her parents were not able to marry each other. Their marriage would have bestowed on Maria the status of a legitimate child.
Maria’s paternal grandfather took care of her, helped raise her and supported her education from kindergarten to college. But when her grandfather died, her uncles excluded her from the inheritance, invoking the law which provides that an “illegitimate child has no right to share in the inheritance of the legitimate relatives of his or her parents.”
Maria invokes in her favor a Supreme Court decision that allowed inheritance rights for illegitimate children “treated as acknowledged and legitimate children” by his or her deceased ancestor.
A trial court declared that Maria has a right to claim an inheritance from her grandfather, but the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling. Thus, the case was elevated to the Supreme Court. Retired Supreme Court justice Jose Vitug and UP College of Law professor Elizabeth Pangalangan will lend their expert knowledge on the issue as appointed friends of the court.
My interest in the case springs from the fact that it comes at a time when it intersects with the resurgent debate on whether the Philippines needs a divorce law.
We actually have a de facto divorce law, but because we are held hostage by religious sensibilities, we hide it under a convoluted law that allows a marriage to be declared void on the ground of one party’s “psychological incapacity.” It is a divorce law only for the rich, because it requires spending for lawyers, psychologists and court fees that are beyond the capacity of the poor.
What poor irreconcilable couples do is to just go their separate ways, and take on new life partners even with an undissolved first marriage. This is creating a twofold social disorder.
One, these second-chance couples are becoming the single biggest class of criminals in our country — guilty of the crimes of adultery, concubinage or bigamy, judging by anecdotal tales on the prevalence of failed first marriages and subsequent unofficial unions among the poor.
Two, these informal couples are giving birth to a growing number of second-class citizens, because their illegitimate children have inferior rights under our laws.
This is unfair for couples whose real crime is to be born poor, and for children who had no say in coming to this world via illegitimate parents.
There was a time when men and women were treated unequally in this world, with women considered an inferior gender not entitled to vote and to seek education. Modern times opened our minds to the cruelty and injustice of this baseless discrimination.
The unequal inheritance rights of legitimate and illegitimate children in our country is a remnant of the same bygone era. It needs rectification with modern thinking that gives primacy to principles of equal protection, fairness and justice.
Whether legitimate or illegitimate, children equally inherit half of their genes from their common ancestors—the bloodline
upon which inheritance rights are anchored. Any perceived differences between the two are a thought-relic belonging to a society with an illegitimate way of thinking.
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