Estate settlement is to preserve family unity

WHEN WHAT IS INHERITED IS A DISPUTE

A 90-year old frail, weak, and bone-skinned grandmother laid asleep in front of me. It took me several weeks to find her after going through several addresses. A month earlier, a client had approached me asking if I could help with the settlement of his husband’s estate. She could not do so since she was abroad in the United States and tendering to their minor children. As she was referred by a good client, I agreed to help her.

The next few weeks would put me in the middle of a very messy and convoluted family dispute that I have encountered thus far in my law practice. I could only feel sad for the grandmother who by all accounts, regardless of which side, was a kind and good woman.

Yet, here she was being fought over by factions of her own children who wanted custody of her not for the best of reasons. It was so whoever was in custody could receive the pension due to her and her late husband, who had served as a U.S. Military officer. Who had the grandmother gets the money. (As I recall, there were accounts of “kidnapping” that happened and the perpetrators were her own children.)

The family’s story begins with their father who was fortunate to have been drafted or enlisted to the U.S. Army during World War II. He continued his service even after the war. He was promoted to a high rank in the military and what came with it was good compensation. As would be expected from such good fortune, the father constructed a big and sturdy family home (think Spanish style windows and wood) a stone’s throw away from the town square or plaza and the municipal hall. (If you are not familiar with Filipino history and culture, the closer your house is to these landmarks which are often at the center of the town, the wealthy or influential you are in the community.)

Then, the father suddenly died and everything started to go wayward. No last will and testament, no arrangements with the children. You can very well expect what would happen next.

Survived by a kind-hearted wife and around eight children, disputes over properties and inheritance surfaced and caused bickering among themselves. It did not help that the eldest sibling was (overly) aggressive, instead of showing restraint and rising to the occasion and assert leadership. The estate covered several tracts of land in their province, most of which were hectares of farmlands and boondocks (as I recall there were about 15 or so properties). Not to mention, their mother was the beneficiary of a handsome pension resulting from their father’s service in the U.S. Military.

These went on for several years. In the interim, a sibling (or a faction) forged the signatures of the other siblings and went into a selling spree. The other siblings only learned of the sale afterwards when they heard of the news, found themselves scratching on the head as to what happened, and wondering what happened to their share. Expectedly, this added fuel to the fire and only worsened their already existing property dispute.

The client was the wife of one of the siblings, who already migrated to the U.S. While she initially did not want to pursue any interest over the properties, her relatives had encouraged her and she thought also about her children who were growing up. She approached me and said that there was supposedly a case pending in the U.S. related to the death of her husband. The court was asking information regarding the decedent’s immediate family members and properties. A court date was given to me to show the urgency of the situation. So, I went to the addresses provided in Metro Manila and outside the province to do a due diligence. (Their province takes about at least six hours to go there!)

Like a telenovela unfolding, I went to the first address to find the wife of the decedent or should I say the first wife. I was quite surprised myself when I was talking to her. She was a nice old woman who was easy to talk with (unlike the other relatives which I would meet later on). When I reported the same to the client, she herself was shocked as she was informed by her late husband that the first wife had already died before they got married. Well, there’s a shocker. I could sense some level of resentment when she learned as apparently their marriage was not all sunshine and rainbow.

At any rate, she still asked me to proceed and off I went to the addresses in the province. True enough, as I visited various Registry of Deeds, there were properties listed under the name of the decedent’s parents. The properties were big parcels of land.

Finally, I ended up visiting the ancestral home. I found one of the sibling who operated an eatery (carinderia) at the ground floor. While initial contact was met with skepticism, I was able to convince them through documentation that I was sent by their in-law (their deceased brother’s wife) due to a pending case in the U.S. There, I pieced together their family history and their property dispute that ranged for over two decades. When I asked about their mother, this is where I learned of the battle for her custody. Even that sibling did not know the whereabouts about their mother and who had custody over her.

Going back to the Metro Manila, I had one more address to check. I ended up in a community of informal settlers where you have to seriously guard your belongings and avoid staring at bystanders (i.e. tambays in Filipino) if you don’t want to be picked on. After traversing through a very small and dark alleyway (a perfect place to be mugged or stabbed, take your pick), I ended up locating a decrepit old and dark-painted house. After I introduced myself, I was invited up through a staircase which was probably from the 1950s.

There, I saw the 90-year old grandmother.

Somehow, after the visit and despite it being peaceful, things went wayward as I got sucked into their messy and convoluted family dispute, with my good intentions being questioned as they hurtled suspicions and doubts. Negative SMS flooded my mobile. Frankly, these did not even make sense.

When cooler heads prevailed, I talked to one reasonably-minded sibling. I filled her in regarding my purpose and intention. She understood and discussed the dire situation of their family. (No kidding, at this point, I already had a perfectly good idea what was happening.)

At any rate, with the way things were and the distrust that deepened through the years, their family problems and property disputes were not likely to be resolved in their lifetime. It is sad hearing to the stories of the reasonably-minded sibling that they were once close as brothers and sisters. Because of the unresolved estate of their father, a wedge chopped through their family relationships resulting in them no longer talking to each other. Their mother will likely not see all her children when she nears her death, and vice-versa.

Every family thinks it will not happen to them, until it does. Properties and inheritance should be blessings to the next generation, through proper planning, written agreements, and documentation.

I wrote this article a few weeks after burying our maternal grandmother, our kind-hearted Lola. Her children and grandchildren were with her at her 85th birthday at a farm restaurant in December, and at the hospital during the Christmas season. Days leading to her passing, she was able to talk to her children even if some were abroad and outside the province. RIP, Lola Ramona.