Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Probate court; jurisdiction over ownership isues - G.R. No. 177099

G.R. No. 177099

"x x x.

As to Sebastian’s and Eduardo’s common issue on the ownership of the subject real properties, we hold that the RTC, as an intestate court, had jurisdiction to resolve the same.

The general rule is that the jurisdiction of the trial court, either as a probate or an intestate court, relates only to matters having to do with the probate of the will and/or settlement of the estate of deceased persons, but does not extend to the determination of questions of ownership that arise during the proceedings.[15] The patent rationale for this rule is that such court merely exercises special and limited jurisdiction.[16] As held in several cases,[17] a probate court or one in charge of estate proceedings, whether testate or intestate, cannot adjudicate or determine title to properties claimed to be a part of the estate and which are claimed to belong to outside parties, not by virtue of any right of inheritance from the deceased but by title adverse to that of the deceased and his estate. All that the said court could do as regards said properties is to determine whether or not they should be included in the inventory of properties to be administered by the administrator. If there is no dispute, there poses no problem, but if there is, then the parties, the administrator, and the opposing parties have to resort to an ordinary action before a court exercising general jurisdiction for a final determination of the conflicting claims of title.

However, this general rule is subject to exceptions as justified by expediency and convenience.

First, the probate court may provisionally pass upon in an intestate or a testate proceeding the question of inclusion in, or exclusion from, the inventory of a piece of property without prejudice to the final determination of ownership in a separate action.[18] Second, if the interested parties are all heirs to the estate, or the question is one of collation or advancement, or the parties consent to the assumption of jurisdiction by the probate court and the rights of third parties are not impaired, then the probate court is competent to resolve issues on ownership.[19] Verily, its jurisdiction extends to matters incidental or collateral to the settlement and distribution of the estate, such as the determination of the status of each heir and whether the property in the inventory is conjugal or exclusive property of the deceased spouse.[20]

We hold that the general rule does not apply to the instant case considering that the parties are all heirs of Joaquin and that no rights of third parties will be impaired by the resolution of the ownership issue. More importantly, the determination of whether the subject properties are conjugal is but collateral to the probate court’s jurisdiction to settle the estate of Joaquin.

It should be remembered that when Eduardo filed his verified petition for judicial settlement of Joaquin’s estate, he alleged that the subject properties were owned by Joaquin and Caridad since the TCTs state that the lots were registered in the name of Joaquin Agtarap, married to Caridad Garcia. He also admitted in his petition that Joaquin, prior to contracting marriage with Caridad, contracted a first marriage with Lucia. Oppositors to the petition, Joseph and Teresa, however, were able to present proof before the RTC that TCT Nos. 38254 and 38255 were derived from a mother title, TCT No. 5239, dated March 17, 1920, in the name of FRANCISCO VICTOR BARNES Y JOAQUIN AGTARAP, el primero casado con Emilia Muscat, y el Segundo con Lucia Garcia Mendietta (FRANCISCO VICTOR BARNES y JOAQUIN AGTARAP, the first married to Emilia Muscat, and the second married to Lucia Garcia Mendietta).[21] When TCT No. 5239 was divided between Francisco Barnes and Joaquin Agtarap, TCT No. 10864, in the name of Joaquin Agtarap, married to Lucia Garcia Mendietta, was issued for a parcel of land, identified as Lot No. 745 of the Cadastral Survey of Pasay, Cadastral Case No. 23, G.L.R.O. Cadastral Record No. 1368, consisting of 8,872 square meters. This same lot was covered by TCT No. 5577 (32184)[22] issued on April 23, 1937, also in the name of Joaquin Agtarap, married to Lucia Garcia Mendietta.

x x x."