The settlement of a person’s estate after his/her death, based on our experience, is potentially one of the more bitter litigations. It’s never good to see relatives fighting each other. Some persons, with the intent of controlling the disposition of his/her properties after his/her death (and hopefully prevent fighting among his/her heirs over the properties left), prepare a “last will and testament”. Let’s have a brief discussion on this matter.
I. “LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT”
A “last will and testament,” or simply a “will,” is “an act whereby a person is permitted, with the formalities prescribed by law, to control to a certain degree the disposition of his estate”. It is a document whereby a person, called the “testator,” disposes of his/her properties or “estate,” to take effect upon his/her death.
The “testator” is the deceased person who made a last will and testament.
The person who is given PERSONAL property through a will is technically called the “legatee,” while the person who is given REAL property in a will is called the “devisee.”
The person named in the will who is entrusted to implement its provisions is called the “executor.” If the “executor” is female, she is formally known as the “executrix”.
II. WILL VS. INHERITANCE
A “will” is different from “inheritance”. A will is different from inheritance, which “includes all the property, rights and obligations of a person which are not extinguished by his death” (Civil Code, Art. 776). In other words, the basic difference between a “will” and “inheritance” is that a “will” is the document that determines the disposition of the “inheritance”.
III. WILLS VS. DONATIONS
A document entitled “last will and testament”, but provides that all properties must be transferred during the lifetime of the testator, is not a “will”. A will takes effect upon death of the testator. If the disposition takes effect before his/her death, it is a donation and is governed by the formalities of and legal provisions on donations.
IV. KINDS OF WILLS
There are two kinds of wills — holographic and notarial. A holographic will must be entirely written, dated, and signed by the hand of the testator himself. It is subject to no other form, and may be made in or out of the Philippines, and need not be witnessed (Article 810, Civil Code; See Holographic Wills: Form, Requirements for Validity and Probate).
On the other hand, a notarial will may be printed, signed by the testator and at least three witnesses, and notarized. [See Notarial Wills: Form and Requirements]
V. ABSENCE OF WILL
A will enables a person to have control over the disposition of his/her estate. In the absence of a will (or if the will is not probated), the general provisions of law govern the disposition of the estate of the deceased person. The proceedings in the absence of a will is called “intestate proceedings.” [See also: Basic Concepts in Estate Proceedings and Extrajudicial Settlement of Estate]
“Probate” is a special proceeding to establish the validity of a will. Probate is mandatory, which means that no will passes either real or personal property unless it is proved and allowed in a proper court. Courts in probate proceedings, as a rule, are limited to pass only upon the extrinsic validity of the will sought to be probated, but the courts are not powerless to do what the situation constrains them to do, and pass upon certain provisions of the will, under exceptional circumstances.
A will may be probated during the lifetime of the testator. This way, the testator could himself/herself affirm the validity of the will.
It is a special proceeding to establish the validity of a will previously proved in a foreign country.
VIII. DUTY OF THE CUSTODIAN OF A WILL
The person who has custody of the will has the legal obligation to produce it. The practical problem with this is when only a few persons know about the existence of the will and all of them agree not to produce it. This is one of the reasons why some testators sometimes entrust the custody of a will to their lawyers, who are then obligated upon death of said testator to enforce the provisions of his/her will.
In the case of Dy Yieng Sangio vs. Reyes (G.R. Nos. 140371-72 (27 November 2006), a petition for the settlement of the intestate estate was filed. The oppositors argued that the deceased has a holographic will and that the intestate proceedings should be automatically suspended and replaced by the proceedings for the probate of the will. A petition for probate of the holographic will was eventually filed. The Supreme Court ordered the probate of the will and the suspension of the intestate proceedings. According to the SC, it is a fundamental principle that the intent or the will of the testator, expressed in the form and within the limits prescribed by law, must be recognized as the supreme law in succession. All rules of construction are designed to ascertain and give effect to that intention. It is only when the intention of the testator is contrary to law, morals, or public policy that it cannot be given effect.
IX. ERROR IN TITLE OF DOCUMENT
Even if a document is not entitled “last will and testament,” it still can be treated as a will. In the case of Dy Yieng Sangio vs. Reyes, the document is entitled “Kasulatan ng Pag-Aalis ng Mana.” The document, although it may initially come across as a mere disinheritance instrument, conforms to the formalities of a holographic will prescribed by law. It is written, dated and signed by the hand of the testator himself. An intent to dispose mortis causa (upon death) can be clearly deduced from the terms of the instrument, and while it does not make an affirmative disposition of the latter’s property, the disinheritance, nonetheless, is an act of disposition in itself. In other words, the disinheritance results in the disposition of the property of the testator in favor of those who would succeed in the disinherited heir.