REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES, PETITIONER, VS. MARIA FE ESPINOSA CANTOR, RESPONDENT. EN BANC, G.R. No. 184621, December 10, 2013. - The Lawyer's Post
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The Essential Requisites for the Declaration of Presumptive Death Under Article 41 of the Family Code
Before a judicial declaration of presumptive death can be obtained, it must be shown that the prior spouse had been absent for four consecutive years and the present spouse had a well-founded belief that the prior spouse was already dead. Under Article 41 of the Family Code, there are four (4) essential requisites for the declaration of presumptive death:
1. That the absent spouse has been missing for four consecutive years, or two consecutive years if the disappearance occurred where there is danger of death under the circumstances laid down in Article 391, Civil Code;
2. That the present spouse wishes to remarry;
3. That the present spouse has a well-founded belief that the absentee is dead; and
4. That the present spouse files a summary proceeding for the declaration of presumptive death of the absentee.
The Present Spouse Has the Burden of Proof to Show that All the Requisites Under Article 41 of the Family Code Are Present
The burden of proof rests on the present spouse to show that all the requisites under Article 41 of the Family Code are present. Since it is the present spouse who, for purposes of declaration of presumptive death, substantially asserts the affirmative of the issue, it stands to reason that the burden of proof lies with him/her. He who alleges a fact has the burden of proving it and mere allegation is not evidence.
Declaration of Presumptive Death Under Article 41 of the Family Code Imposes a Stricter Standard
Notably, Article 41 of the Family Code, compared to the old provision of the Civil Code which it superseded, imposes a stricter standard. It requires a “well-founded belief” that the absentee is already dead before a petition for declaration of presumptive death can be granted. We have had occasion to make the same observation in Republic v. Nolasco, where we noted the crucial differences between Article 41 of the Family Code and Article 83 of the Civil Code, to wit:
Under Article 41, the time required for the presumption to arise has been shortened to four (4) years; however, there is need for a judicial declaration of presumptive death to enable the spouse present to remarry. Also, Article 41 of the Family Code imposes a stricter standard than the Civil Code: Article 83 of the Civil Code merely requires either that there be no news that such absentee is still alive; or the absentee is generally considered to be dead and believed to be so by the spouse present, or is presumed dead under Articles 390 and 391 of the Civil Code. The Family Code, upon the other hand, prescribes as “well founded belief” that the absentee is already dead before a petition for declaration of presumptive death can be granted.
Thus, mere absence of the spouse (even for such period required by the law), lack of any news that such absentee is still alive, failure to communicate or general presumption of absence under the Civil Code would not suffice. This conclusion proceeds from the premise that Article 41 of the Family Code places upon the present spouse the burden of proving the additional and more stringent requirement of “well-founded belief” which can only be discharged upon a showing of proper and honest-to-goodness inquiries and efforts to ascertain not only the absent spouse’s whereabouts but, more importantly, that the absent spouse is still alive or is already dead.
The Requirement of Well-Founded Belief
The law did not define what is meant by “well-founded belief.” It depends upon the circumstances of each particular case. Its determination, so to speak, remains on a case-to-case basis. To be able to comply with this requirement, the present spouse must prove that his/her belief was the result of diligent and reasonable efforts and inquiries to locate the absent spouse and that based on these efforts and inquiries, he/she believes that under the circumstances, the absent spouse is already dead. It requires exertion of active effort (not a mere passive one).
To illustrate this degree of “diligent and reasonable search” required by the law, an analysis of the following relevant cases is warranted:
i. Republic of the Philippines v. Court of Appeals (Tenth Div.)
In Republic of the Philippines v. Court of Appeals (Tenth Div.), the Court ruled that the present spouse failed to prove that he had a well-founded belief that his absent spouse was already dead before he filed his petition. His efforts to locate his absent wife allegedly consisted of the following:
(1) He went to his in-laws’ house to look for her;
(2) He sought the barangay captain’s aid to locate her;
(3) He went to her friends’ houses to find her and inquired about her whereabouts among his friends;
(4) He went to Manila and worked as a part-time taxi driver to look for her in malls during his free time;
(5) He went back to Catbalogan and again looked for her; and
(6) He reported her disappearance to the local police station and to the NBI.
Despite these alleged “earnest efforts,” the Court still ruled against the present spouse. The Court found that he failed to present the persons from whom he allegedly made inquiries and only reported his wife’s absence after the OSG filed its notice to dismiss his petition in the RTC.
The Court also provided the following criteria for determining the existence of a “well-founded belief” under Article 41 of the Family Code:
The belief of the present spouse must be the result of proper and honest to goodness inquiries and efforts to ascertain the whereabouts of the absent spouse and whether the absent spouse is still alive or is already dead. Whether or not the spouse present acted on a well-founded belief of death of the absent spouse depends upon the inquiries to be drawn from a great many circumstances occurring before and after the disappearance of the absent spouse and the nature and extent of the inquiries made by [the] present spouse.
ii. Republic v. Granada
Similarly in Granada, the Court ruled that the absent spouse failed to prove her “well-founded belief” that her absent spouse was already dead prior to her filing of the petition. In this case, the present spouse alleged that her brother had made inquiries from their relatives regarding the absent spouse’s whereabouts. The present spouse did not report to the police nor seek the aid of the mass media. Applying the standards in Republic of the Philippines v. Court of Appeals (Tenth Div.), the Court ruled against the present spouse, as follows:
Applying the foregoing standards to the present case, petitioner points out that respondent Yolanda did not initiate a diligent search to locate her absent husband. While her brother Diosdado Cadacio testified to having inquired about the whereabouts of Cyrus from the latter’s relatives, these relatives were not presented to corroborate Diosdado’s testimony. In short, respondent was allegedly not diligent in her search for her husband. Petitioner argues that if she were, she would have sought information from the Taiwanese Consular Office or assistance from other government agencies in Taiwan or the Philippines. She could have also utilized mass media for this end, but she did not. Worse, she failed to explain these omissions.
iii. Republic v. Nolasco
In Nolasco, the present spouse filed a petition for declaration of presumptive death of his wife, who had been missing for more than four years. He testified that his efforts to find her consisted of:
(1) Searching for her whenever his ship docked in England;
(2) Sending her letters which were all returned to him; and
(3) Inquiring from their friends regarding her whereabouts, which all proved fruitless.
The Court ruled that the present spouse’s investigations were too sketchy to form a basis that his wife was already dead and ruled that the pieces of evidence only proved that his wife had chosen not to communicate with their common acquaintances, and not that she was dead.
iv. The present case
In the case at bar, the respondent’s “well-founded belief” was anchored on her alleged “earnest efforts” to locate Jerry, which consisted of the following:
(1) She made inquiries about Jerry’s whereabouts from her in-laws, neighbors and friends; and
(2) Whenever she went to a hospital, she saw to it that she looked through the patients’ directory, hoping to find Jerry.
These efforts, however, fell short of the “stringent standard” and degree of diligence required by jurisprudence for the following reasons:
First, the respondent did not actively look for her missing husband. It can be inferred from the records that her hospital visits and her consequent checking of the patients’ directory therein were unintentional. She did not purposely undertake a diligent search for her husband as her hospital visits were not planned nor primarily directed to look for him. This Court thus considers these attempts insufficient to engender a belief that her husband is dead.
Second, she did not report Jerry’s absence to the police nor did she seek the aid of the authorities to look for him. While a finding of well-founded belief varies with the nature of the situation in which the present spouse is placed, under present conditions, we find it proper and prudent for a present spouse, whose spouse had been missing, to seek the aid of the authorities or, at the very least, report his/her absence to the police.
Third, she did not present as witnesses Jerry’s relatives or their neighbors and friends, who can corroborate her efforts to locate Jerry. Worse, these persons, from whom she allegedly made inquiries, were not even named. As held in Nolasco, the present spouse’s bare assertion that he inquired from his friends about his absent spouse’s whereabouts is insufficient as the names of the friends from whom he made inquiries were not identified in the testimony nor presented as witnesses.
Lastly, there was no other corroborative evidence to support the respondent’s claim that she conducted a diligent search. Neither was there supporting evidence proving that she had a well-founded belief other than her bare claims that she inquired from her friends and in-laws about her husband’s whereabouts.
In sum, the Court is of the view that the respondent merely engaged in a “passive search” where she relied on uncorroborated inquiries from her in-laws, neighbors and friends. She failed to conduct a diligent search because her alleged efforts are insufficient to form a well-founded belief that her husband was already dead. As held in Republic of the Philippines v. Court of Appeals (Tenth Div.), “[w]hether or not the spouse present acted on a well-founded belief of death of the absent spouse depends upon the inquiries to be drawn from a great many circumstances occurring before and after the disappearance of the absent spouse and the nature and extent of the inquiries made by [the] present spouse.”
Strict Standard Approach Is Consistent with the State’s Policy to Protect and Strengthen Marriage
In the above-cited cases, the Court, fully aware of the possible collusion of spouses in nullifying their marriage, has consistently applied the “strict standard” approach. This is to ensure that a petition for declaration of presumptive death under Article 41 of the Family Code is not used as a tool to conveniently circumvent the laws. Courts should never allow procedural shortcuts and should ensure that the stricter standard required by the Family Code is met. In Republic of the Philippines v. Court of Appeals (Tenth Div.), we emphasized that:
In view of the summary nature of proceedings under Article 41 of the Family Code for the declaration of presumptive death of one’s spouse, the degree of due diligence set by this Honorable Court in the above-mentioned cases in locating the whereabouts of a missing spouse must be strictly complied with. There have been times when Article 41 of the Family Code had been resorted to by parties wishing to remarry knowing fully well that their alleged missing spouses are alive and well. It is even possible that those who cannot have their marriages xxx declared null and void under Article 36 of the Family Code resort to Article 41 of the Family Code for relief because of the xxx summary nature of its proceedings.
The application of this stricter standard becomes even more imperative if we consider the State’s policy to protect and strengthen the institution of marriage. Since marriage serves as the family’s foundation and since it is the state’s policy to protect and strengthen the family as a basic social institution, marriage should not be permitted to be dissolved at the whim of the parties. In interpreting and applying Article 41, this is the underlying rationale – to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Arroyo, Jr. v. Court of Appeals[ reflected this sentiment when we stressed:
[The] protection of the basic social institutions of marriage and the family in the preservation of which the State has the strongest interest; the public policy here involved is of the most fundamental kind. In Article II, Section 12 of the Constitution there is set forth the following basic state policy:
The State recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic autonomous social institution.
Strict Standard Prescribed Under Article 41 of the Family Code Is for the Present Spouse’s Benefit
The requisite judicial declaration of presumptive death of the absent spouse (and consequently, the application of a stringent standard for its issuance) is also for the present spouse’s benefit. It is intended to protect him/her from a criminal prosecution of bigamy under Article 349 of the Revised Penal Code which might come into play if he/she would prematurely remarry sans the court’s declaration.
Upon the issuance of the decision declaring his/her absent spouse presumptively dead, the present spouse’s good faith in contracting a second marriage is effectively established. The decision of the competent court constitutes sufficient proof of his/her good faith and his/her criminal intent in case of remarriage is effectively negated. Thus, for purposes of remarriage, it is necessary to strictly comply with the stringent standard and have the absent spouse judicially declared presumptively dead.
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