Salud Teodoro Vda. de Perez v. Hon. Zotico A. Tolete, G.R. No. 76714, June 2, 1994


Dr. Jose F. Cunanan and his wife, Dr. Evelyn Perez-Cunanan, who became American citizens, established a successful medical practice in New York, USA.

On August 23, 1979, Dr. Jose executed a last will and testament, bequeathing to his wife “all the remainder” of his real and personal property at the time of his death “wheresoever situated.” In the event he would survive his wife, he bequeathed all his property to his children and grandchildren with Dr. Rafael G. Cunanan, Jr. as trustee. He appointed his wife as executrix of his last will and testament and Dr. Rafael Jr. as substitute executor.

In his will, Dr. Jose provided that should he and his wife die under such circumstances that there is not sufficient evidence to determine the order of their deaths, the presumption is that he died first.

Four days later, Dr. Evelyn executed her own last will and testament, containing the same provisions as that of her husband. Likewise, she provided that should she and her husband died under such circumstances that there is not sufficient evidence to determine the order of their deaths, it should be presumed that he died first.

On January 9, 1982, Dr. Jose and his entire family perished when they were trapped by fire that gutted their home. Thereafter, Dr. Rafael Jr. as trustee and substitute executor of the two wills, filed separate proceedings for the probate thereof in the Surrogate Court of the County of Onondaga, New York. The wills were admitted to probate and letters testamentary were issued in his favor.

On February 21, 1983, Salud Teodoro Perez, the mother of Dr. Evelyn, filed with the RTC of Malolos, Bulacan a petition for the reprobate of the two wills ancillary to the probate proceedings in New York. She also asked that she be appointed as special administratrix of the estate of the deceased couple consisting primarily of a farm land in San Miguel, Bulacan. She was granted letters of special administration and posted bond in the amount of PHP 10,000.00. As special administratrix, Salud consolidated the assets of the Cunanan spouses, including the bank deposits of Dr. Jose.

The brothers and sisters of Dr. Jose opposed and asked to be notified of the proceedings as heirs of Dr. Jose F. Cunanan. But their status as heirs were disputed by Salud, who said that they were only collaterals and not heirs as “heirship is only by institution” under a will or by operation of the law of New York. Since the will of Dr. Jose provided a presumption that he predeceased his wife, his estate passed on to his wife, Dr. Evelyn. Salud, being the sole heir of Dr. Evelyn, thus inherited the estate of the Cunanan spouses.

The Cunanan heirs soon asked that the RTC proceedings be nullified and that the appointment of Salud as special administratrix be set aside. They also asked that Dr. Rafael Sr., brother of Dr. Jose, be appointed the regular administrator of the estate of the deceased spouses. They alleged that the Cunanan heirs and Salud had entered into an agreement in the United States “to settle and divide equally the estates.”

RTC issued an order, disallowing the reprobate of the two wills, recalling the appointment of petitioner as special administratrix, requiring the submission of petitioner of an inventory of the property received by her as special administratrix and declaring all pending incidents moot and academic.  The RTC Judge reasoned out that petitioner failed to prove the law of New York on procedure and allowance of wills and the court had no way of telling whether the wills were executed in accordance with the law of New York. In the absence of such evidence, the presumption is that the law of succession of the foreign country is the same as the law of the Philippines.

Salud’s motion for reconsideration was granted. In another order, the RTC Judge held that the documents presented did not establish the law of New York on the procedure and allowance of wills but granted a motion to submit additional evidence to prove the law of New York. However, the RTC Judge ruled that the probate of two wills in a single proceeding is not procedural.

Hence, this petition.




Requirements for allowance of foreign wills for probate in the Philippines

The respective wills of the Cunanan spouses, who were American citizens, will only be effective in this country upon compliance with the following provisions of the Civil Code of the Philippines:

“Art. 816. The will of an alien who is abroad produces effect in the Philippines if made with the formalities prescribed by law of the place in which he resides, or according to the formalities observed in his country, or in conformity with those which this Code prescribes.”

Thus, proof that both wills conform with the formalities prescribed by New York laws or by Philippine laws is imperative.

The evidence necessary for the reprobate or allowance of wills which have been probated outside of the Philippines are as follows: (1) the due execution of the will in accordance with the foreign laws; (2) the testator has his domicile in the foreign country and not in the Philippines; (3) the will has been admitted to probate in such country; (4) the fact that the foreign tribunal is a probate court, and (5) the laws of a foreign country on procedure and allowance of wills. Except for the first and law requirements, the petitioner submitted all the needed evidence.

The necessity of presenting evidence on the foreign laws upon which the probate in the foreign country is based is impelled by the fact that our courts cannot take judicial notice of them.

While the probate of a will is a special proceeding wherein courts should relax the rules on evidence, the goal is to receive the best evidence of which the matter is susceptible before a purported will is probated or denied probate.

The separate wills of the Cunanan spouses should be probated jointly

There is merit in petitioner’s insistence that the separate wills of the Cunanan spouses should be probated jointly. Respondent Judge’s view that the Rules on allowance of wills is couched in singular terms and therefore should be interpreted to mean that there should be separate probate proceedings for the wills of the Cunanan spouses is too literal and simplistic an approach. Such view overlooks the provisions of Section 2, Rule 1 of the Revised Rules of Court, which advise that the rules shall be “liberally construed in order to promote their object and to assist the parties in obtaining just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.”

A literal application of the Rules should be avoided if they would only result in the delay in the administration of justice.

What the law expressly prohibits is the making of joint wills either for the testator’s reciprocal benefit or for the benefit of a third person. In the case at bench, the Cunanan spouses executed separate wills. Since the two will contains essentially the same provisions and pertain to property which in all probability are conjugal in nature, practical considerations dictate their joint probate. As this Court has held a number of times, it will always strive to settle the entire controversy in a single proceeding leaving no root or branch to bear the seeds of future litigation.

On the requirement of notice

Petitioner has always considered herself the sole heir of Dr. Evelyn Perez Cunanan and because she does not consider herself an heir of Dr. Jose F. Cunanan, she noticeably failed to notify his heirs of the filing of the proceedings.

The rule that the court having jurisdiction over the reprobate of a will shall “cause notice thereof to be given as in case of an original will presented for allowance” means that with regards to notices, the will probated abroad should be treated as if it were an “original will” or a will that is presented for probate for the first time. Accordingly, compliance with Sections 3 and 4 of Rule 76, which require publication and notice by mail or personally to the “known heirs, legatees, and devisees of the testator resident in the Philippines” and to the executor, if he is not the petitioner, are required.

The brothers and sisters of Dr. Jose F. Cunanan, contrary to petitioner’s claim are entitled to notices of the time and place for proving the wills. Under Section 4 of Rule 76 of the Revised Rules of Court, the “court shall also cause copies of the notice of the time and place fixed for proving the will to be addressed to the designated or other known heirs, legatees, and devisees of the testator, …”

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