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Of family members and strangers

Joe and his family have been lessees of a property co-owned by his full-blooded sister, Connie, and her children.

In 2003, through numerous electronic mails and letters, the owners of the land offered to sell to Joe the subject lands which he accepted. Notably, the agreement was made verbally and was not immediately reduced into writing, but the parties had the intention to eventually memorialize the same via a written document. Over the next few years, Joe made partial payments to respondents by paying off the shares of the other co-owners, leaving a remaining balance payable to Connie.

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In a sudden twist of events, Connie decided to cancel their agreement, and thereafter, informed Joe of her intent to convert the earlier partial payments as rental payments instead. Naturally, Joe expressed his disapproval to Connie’s plan and demanded that she proceed with the sale, which the latter ignored. He claimed that, without his consent, Connie and her children sold their shares over the subject lands to one of Connie’s children/co-owner, Ren, thereby consolidating full ownership of the subject lands to him. Consequently, new titles will be issued in Ren’s name.

Upon learning of such sale, Joe sent a demand letter to Ren, and later on to Connie and the other co-owners, asserting his right to the subject lands under the previous sale agreed upon. As his demands went unheeded, Joe brought the matter to the barangay lupon for conciliation proceedings between him and Ren only, since Connie and the other co-owners are all living abroad. As no settlement was agreed upon, Joe was constrained to file the subject complaint for specific performance and cancellation of titles with damages and application for temporary restraining order and writ of preliminary injunction, docketed as Civil Case No. 12-004.

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The Regional Trial Court motu proprio ordered the dismissal of Joe’s complaint for failure to allege compliance with the provision of Article 151 of the Family Code which requires earnest efforts to be made first before suits may be filed between family members.

Q: What is Art. 151 of the Family Code?

A: Article 151 of the Family Code reads “No suit between members of the same family shall prosper unless it should appear from the verified complaint or petition that earnest efforts toward a compromise have been made, but that the same have failed. If it is shown that no such efforts were in fact made, the case must be dismissed.”

This rule shall not apply to cases which may not be the subject of compromise under the Civil Code.

Q: What is the wisdom behind the provision?

A: The wisdom behind the provision is to maintain sacred the ties among members of the same family. “As pointed out by the Code Commission, it is difficult to imagine a sadder and more tragic spectacle than a litigation between members of the same family. It is necessary that every effort should be made toward a compromise before a litigation is allowed to breed hate and passion in the family and it is known that a lawsuit between close relatives generates deeper bitterness than between strangers.” Thus, a party’s failure to comply with this provision before filing a complaint against a family member would render such complaint premature; hence, dismissible.

Q: Is non-compliance with the earnest effort requirement under Article 151 of the Family Code deprive a court of its authority to hear and decide the case?

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A: No, it’s not a jurisdictional defect which would authorize the courts to dismiss suits filed before them motu proprio. Rather, it merely partakes of a condition precedent such that the non-compliance therewith constitutes a ground for dismissal of a suit should the same be invoked by the opposing party at the earliest opportunity, as in a motion to dismiss or in the answer. Otherwise, such ground is deemed waived.

Q: Can the RTC dismiss the case motu propio?

A: No, a plain reading of the records shows that the RTC ordered the dismissal of Joe’s complaint against respondents for his alleged failure to comply with A1ticle 151 of the Family Code—even before the defendants have filed a motion or a responsive pleading invoking such non-compliance. As such ground is not a jurisdictional defect but is a mere condition precedent, the courts a quo clearly erred in finding that a motu proprio dismissal was warranted under the given circumstances.

Even assuming arguendo that respondents invoked the foregoing ground at the earliest opportunity, the Court nevertheless finds Article 151 of the Family Code inapplicable to this case. For Article 151 of the Family Code to apply, the suit must be exclusively between or among “members of the same family.” Once a stranger becomes a party to such suit, the earnest effort requirement is no longer a condition precedent before the action can prosper.

Q: Who are deemed family members?

A: Article 150 of the Family Code reads: “Family relations include those:

(1) Between husband and wife;

(2) Between parents and children;

(3) Among other ascendants and descendants: and

(4) Among brothers and sisters, whether of the full or half-blood.

In this light, case law states that Article 151 of the Family Code must be construed strictly, it being an exception to the general rule. Hence, any person having a collateral familial relation with the plaintiff other than what is enumerated in Article 150 of the Family Code is considered a stranger who, if included in a suit between and among family members, would render unnecessary the earnest efforts requirement under Article 151.Expressio unius est exclusio alterius. The express mention of one person, thing, act, or consequence excludes all others.

In this instance, it is undisputed that: (a) Joe and Connie are full-blooded siblings; and (b) the rest are the nephews and niece of their uncle, Joe. It then follows that the nephews and niece are considered “strangers’’ to Joe insofar as Article 151 of the Family Code is concerned. In this relation, it is apt to clarify that whi1e it was the disagreement between Joe and Connie that directly resulted in the filing of the suit, the fact remains that nephews and nieces were rightfully impleaded as co-defendants Jose’s complaint as they are co-owners of the subject lands in dispute. In view of the inclusion “strangers” to the suit between Joe and Connie who are full-blooded siblings, then the suit is beyond the ambit of Article 151 of the Family Code. Perforce, it is wrong for the court to dismiss Joe’s complaint due to non-compliance with the earnest effort requirement therein.

(Source: Moreno vs. Kahn, G.R. No. 217744, July 30, 2018)

Ma. Soledad Deriquito-Mawis Dean, Lyceum of the Philippines University Mawis Law Office Member, Board of Trustees, Philippine Association of Law Schools

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TAGS: Family Code, Property Rules
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