There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents," declared Irish politician and civil rights activist Bernadette Devlin when her daughter was born out of wedlock. In agreement, the Supreme Court recently abandoned the use of the terms "legitimate" and "illegitimate" in distinguishing between the nature, rights, status, and privileges of children whose parents were married or unmarried at the time of their birth. Instead, the high tribunal preferred to use the terms "marital" and "nonmarital," if only to differentiate the marital status of a child's parents.
As a recent decision of the Supreme Court explained, "legitimate" and "illegitimate" are pejorative terms based on "the presumption that nonmarital children are products of illicit relationships, or that they are automatically placed in a hostile environment perpetrated by the marital family."
This is more than a change in nomenclature. It also heralds a change in society's perception of children who happened to be born—for various reasons—before their parents could get married.
The decision stems from a case filed by a petitioner who sought to assert her right to inherit from her paternal grandfather. Her father had died before she was born and before he could marry her mother. Her grandfather chose to take care of her, helped raise her, and supported her education from kindergarten to college. But when the grandfather passed away in 1999, her uncles excluded her from inheriting from him.
Their action was based on Article 992 of the Civil Code which says that an "illegitimate child has no right to inherit ab intestato from the legitimate children or relatives of his father or mother; nor shall such children or relatives inherit in the same manner from the illegitimate child." However, the present Supreme Court, in its latest en banc ruling penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, ruled that grandparents and other direct ascendants are outside the scope of "relatives" under Article 992.
In previous cases, the Court had interpreted Article 992 as barring nonmarital children from inheriting from their grandparents and other direct ascendants, as they are covered by the term "relatives." The Supreme Court called this prohibition the "iron curtain rule," inferred from a perceived hostility between the marital and nonmarital sides of a family. But in reexamining the "iron curtain rule," the Supreme Court found that Article 992 "should be construed to account for other circumstances of birth and family dynamics."
In addition, the SC ruled that "both marital and nonmarital children, whether born from a marital or nonmarital child, are blood relatives of their parents and other ascendants. Thus, a nonmarital child's right of representation should be governed by Article 982 of the Civil Code, which does not differentiate based on the birth status of grandchildren and other direct descendants."
Indeed, UP Law professor and author Elizabeth Aguiling-Pangalangan, who was drafted as a "friend of the court" in this case, has found that the number of nonmarital children in the country has been increasing. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority show that the number of nonmarital children in the Philippines stands at 53 percent, with the biggest proportion from Eastern Visayas (65 percent) and the National Capital Region (64.9 percent).
Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando then queried: "The bigger number of nonmarital children as shown by statistics would also be reflective of a change in societal attitudes with respect to marital children and nonmarital children, meaning is it safe to assume based on these statistics that now society is more than willing to accept nonmarital children as human beings, equal in the eyes of the law and of God and of everything else that stands in our universe?" While Pangalangan agreed that society's mind has become more open, nonmarital children still suffer some stigma, with Article 992 seen as a legal setback against nonmarital children.
Former Ateneo Law dean Cynthia del Castillo, also a "friend of the court," said the issue of unfairness "is the one that strikes the heart most." She added that "the distinction between the illegitimate and the legitimate is several decades long overdue. Today, in the year 2019 (when oral arguments took place), this is really so much that it is irrelevant to make that distinction."
The Supreme Court should be commended for this wise and just decision that will have a huge impact on the lives of children, whatever are the circumstances that brought them into this world. It is time for the "iron curtain rule" to fall. To keep it is to perpetuate the personal hostility and resentment that has been used to deprive nonmarital children of their rights and entitlements through no fault of their own.
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