The VIPs of Estate Law

7 min read
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There is a protected group of people when it comes to inheritance.

Among heirs, there is a special group that enjoys a special status. The members of this group are clearly defined by law, and if you fall into this category, then you get to enjoy protections when it comes to inheritance distribution. In this article, we get to talk about compulsory heirs.

It's important to understand this group of people because they have different roles and protections. If people don't understand this difference, they may end up accusing their relatives of cheating them out of an inheritance when in fact, they weren't entitled to it in the first place. Let's get clear on "who" the compulsory heirs are and "what rights" they are given by the law so that everyone's on the same page.

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Compulsory heirs - the VIP's of Estate Law

Compulsory Heirs are "compulsory" because they are considered automatically included in the estate distribution. They don't need to do anything. Just by the fact that they exist, they are automatically considered a participant in the estate.

Another name for them is "Forced Heirs". It reflects the fact that the person who died has no choice but to consider them for the distribution of their assets when they are gone. The estate is "forced" to include them for distribution purposes.

Why are they important to identify?

Assuming that you're considered a compulsory heir, what would that do for you? Well, a certain portion of the estate is automatically reserved for compulsory heirs. There is a minimum amount that they are supposed to get. The technical term for that minimum portion you get is "legitime"and it varies depending on how many compulsory heirs are present. Basically, think of it as a pizza pie. The more guests, the more (and consequently smaller) slices the pie has to be divided into.

The law goes out of its way to protect these VIPs both from internal and external threats. Internal because some family members may lobby for a bigger share over the compulsory heirs. Even the decedent himself is prevented by the law from not giving the minimum shares due to the compulsory heirs except in disinheritance cases (if you're curious, take a look at Articles 842 and 904 of Civil Code). External threats may take the form of people or organizations outside the family may want to weigh in the distribution of the inheritance. Again, the law expressly prioritizes the distribution for compulsory heirs.

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Who are considered Compulsory heirs?

Why all the fuss about compulsory heirs? Why the privileged status? This protection makes sense when I start discussing who these people are. Here's the official listing from the Civil Code:

"Art. 887. The following are compulsory heirs:

  1. Legitimate children and descendants, with respect to their legitimate parents and ascendants;
  2. In default of the foregoing, legitimate parents and ascendants, with respect to their legitimate children and descendants;
  3. The widow or widower;
  4. Acknowledged natural children, and natural children by legal fiction;
  5. Other illegitimate children referred to in Article 287."

Let's break this provision down so that it's easy to understand. I'll let you in on some observations:

First off, the majority of the provision covers children. They are the primary group sought to be protected. They will be the ones to carry on the family direct line so it only makes sense for the law to prioritize them to inherit what the decedent left behind.

Second, children cover the whole spectrum: legitimate, illegitimate, acknowledged natural children, and natural children by legal fiction. They are included, but as you will realize later on, the legitimes will be in different amounts for them.

Next, in the absence of children, the ancestors come into play. Why? In my opinion, probably the law feels that while they are important, the children need the resources more. They can fend for themselves since they are adults now.

Finally, the surviving spouse (otherwise known as the widow or widower) always figures into the picture regardless whether there are children or ancestors present. However, the amount due to the spouse chances depending on the cast of characters involved.

Adopted kids

You may be thinking, "Attorney, what about adopted children?" As far as the law is concerned, there is no difference between natural and adopted children. However, when we talk about adoption, this is supposed to pertain to an actual adoption case which went thru the courts. Just considering a person as your child does not count (this is common here in the Philippines). You have to have a court decision saying that the child is legally adopted for them to be considered a compulsory heir.

"But Attorney, if they weren't legally adopted as you described, does that mean they don't get anything?" Well, it's still possible for a portion of the estate to go to them later on but that would be thru another distribution channel. Remember, we're talking about compulsory heirs here. All I'm saying is that they're not considered compulsory, but they can still receive under other modes of distribution which we can discuss later on in other articles.

Illegitimate kids

Since we discussed adopted children, let's talk about another classification which frequently comes up as well: illegitimate children. As illegitimate children, are they considered compulsory heirs?

Yes they are. The law wants to protect them as well. They will get a share. However, there is a difference with regard to the benefit reserved for them. Whatever the law reserves for legitimate kids, their illegitimate counterparts get 1/2 of this. Unfair? Well, to me, I think this is the law's compromise. They want to protect illegitimate kids, but at the same time, it wanted to send the message that it wants to encourage and protect marriage as an inviolable social institution (Article XV, Sec 2, Constitution).

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What if they weren't married?

Compulsory heirs specifically mention surviving spouse. Does this cover common law partners? Unfortunately, the term spouse means that you were legally married within the meaning of the Family Code. I'm afraid that even if the partners loved each other, the law requires that they be legally married for the surviving spouse to be considered a compulsory heir. These partners can inherit in other ways though... just not in a compulsory heir capacity. More on that later on.

Why are there compulsory heirs in the first place?

Well, not all families have the same relationships. Some are contentious. Supreme Court cases are replete with family squabbles. Regardless of how the family members treat each other, the law saw it fit to ensure the survival of the remaining family members. That's why they designated children and the surviving spouse as forced heirs.

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But what if they're really bad?

As a side note, what if the kids or your spouse are terrible and you feel that they don't deserve any inheritance? Are you bound to consider them compulsory heirs regardless? Seems a bit inflexible considering how horrible some people are.

Well, the law provided a remedy called Disinheritance. However, the bar was set a bit high. There are specific grounds which you can invoke to disinherit a person and you have to do this thru a will. I'll discuss this in another article.

But what if there are no compulsory heirs?

You may be asking, "Attorney, not all people are married, have kids or have ancestors still living when they pass away. What happens then?"

That's a good question. Other groups of heirs will then come into play. I'll discuss them introduce them to you guys in the next article.

Next Steps

So let's recap everything we've discussed here. There is a special classification of heirs under the law called compulsory heirs. They are important because a certain portion of the inheritance is specifically reserved for them.

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