29 April 2023

The three of us former schoolmates from Class ’76 — Anna, Nina, and I, Celia are on a long car drive, chatting away about our problems in life.  The topic turns to inheritance issues.

Disclaimer: This story is a composite of various interviews held. The characters are fictional, and the photo above is for illustration purposes only.

I share my own story. I have been trying to raise money to help one of my sons send his children to private schools. I say, “Do you know that private universities now charge upwards of Php50,000 (US$1,000+) tuition alone per student, per semester?  It is terribly expensive, and when you have several children, it becomes downright unaffordable, but you know naman what public schools are like in this country, so there's really no choice.”


“Celia,” Anna interrupts, “We remember you had this big house where we used to hold parties during our college years. What happened to that house”? 


“That was the house of my parents, but my brother Ben is staying there now. He has a big family, and his children all seem to have uncertain means of livelihood. So, his whole family lives there.


“Ben refuses to leave the house, but of course, there are five of us siblings. As natural heirs, we all need to sign the Deed of Sale if we wish to sell the house and divvy the proceeds, which is really what the rest of us want to do. But Ben also refuses to sign any sale document. Until now, we are still in some sort of limbo. My husband and children are pressuring me to do something about it, but at my age, “ayaw ko na magpagulo. Bahala na”.  (I don’t want any more stress. Come what may).

Nina enjoins, “Who holds the title?  In my case, there are three of us siblings. I am the eldest; I have been keeping the titles of the family properties even during the days of our parents.  My brother is a doctor and lives in the States—he’s doing very well and doesn’t need the money. On the other hand, my sister is living off the pension of her husband, and her little businesses are not doing so well. So, I have decided to give the house of my parents to her—I’m already arranging the paperwork. My brother is complaining—he thinks he also has a right to his inheritance. He is so swapang talaga (greedy, really). I just ignore him. You know, Celia, you can always fake Ben’s signature if you need to. It’s easy. For myself, I think I have the moral duty to help my sister who needs the money more.”  


“I don’t know that I agree with you, Nina,”  I counter. “I think your brother has every right to demand his full inheritance. Who are you to decide for him? How can you be so sure who needs money and who doesn’t? These are all your perceptions. And anyway, if your sister is truly in need and your brother has more than enough, perhaps you can talk to him and appeal to his generosity and love for his sister. Personally, I think you should not usurp his rights. Maybe our ideas about fairness are just different. Or maybe you don't think fairness is important."


Anna has been quiet. To deflect what can be a potential argument between Nina and myself, Nina asks Anna, “How about you, Anna, your family has some assets too, and your parents have passed, right? Do you have any inheritance issues”? 

“Sino ba ang may assets dito sa Pilipinas na walang inheritance issue? Kahit ang maid ko sa bahay na ang mga magulang ay may kaunting lupa sa probinsiya, nagaaway silang magkakapatid."  (Who among Filipinos with assets do not have inheritance issues? Even my helper in the house whose parents owned a small lot in the province have family squabbles over the land).


Anna continues, “My own mother, who survived my father, even had a Will. But Wills here don’t work, as you know, unless all the siblings respect it, or you go to court. But if you do, you’re just making the lawyers rich. After years of litigation, your case will end nowhere. Anyway, my family never had big houses like you two, but yes, of course, we had inheritance issues”.


“I remember after my mother died, we all went to the bank to close her account and empty her deposit box. She kept important papers and her jewellery there, nothing of big value like so many millionaires here. Anyhow, my two sisters each kept one of the two copies of the key to the safe deposit box, but when we four siblings opened the box, her jewellery was gone!  Each sister blamed the other, and that has caused estrangement among us siblings. We used to be very close, you know.  I feel so sad that the years when we bonded, did things for each other, and protected each other—they’re all gone over what? Mere things!


In the end, we three friends agree that despite our frustrations, we are lucky we don’t belong to traditional Filipino-Chinese families. For example, I have a Chinese-Filipina friend who depends on dole-outs from her super-rich two brothers. But they claim she had already been given her dowry when she married.  It's not their fault that the dowry money is all gone.  They don’t see her having any rights to anything else.

We continue gossiping.  Personally, I find these stories enlightening, and in a strange way, they make me feel good about my own situation.


We three are all comfortably well-off.  Still, we don't belong to the super-rich in Manila. You don't have to look hard to find them--all the Who’s Who in the country who have cases languishing in court, and their dirty linens paraded all over the newspapers. In one famous case, the brother-in-law shot dead one of the siblings during an altercation over the division of the properties. His sister sided with her husband, and in no time, the family was divided into two camps. Nevertheless, the case filed in court was promptly settled because the husband was a close relative of one of the most powerful politicians in the country. This, however, did not resolve the issue as the third generation who have absolutely nothing to do with the quarrel, still don’t talk to each other unless they belong to the same camp.


Talking about court cases, another well-known family of six siblings have been at each other’s throats since the 1990s--from allegations over the patriarch’s abduction, to false medications, to supposedly forged documents. These suits and countersuits are still being argued in court more than 25 years hence.


The issues are complicated when the “favourite” of the surviving spouse coopts their sympathy, or when more "savvy" in-laws join the family.  In one case of four siblings, the youngest daughter who was a rather “unproductive artist,” was largely left out of the mana (inheritance). The reason was that she had been supported by her family all her life. Everyone else worked in the family business except her. When it came time to divide the assets, the siblings decided to continue her allowance instead. This went on for some time, and she was quite happy with the arrangement until she married a lawyer.  Her husband then argued about her legal rights and about the unfairness of the whole affair. She didn’t work in the family business because she was never asked. Nothing was ever explained—she simply had to sign whatever document was presented to her.  Additionally, her husband reasoned out that it was humiliating to have to beg for money when it was rightfully hers. And so, the fights and arguments went on and on. 

We finally reach our destination. I, and I suppose my schoolmates as well, feel relieved that we have had the opportunity to air our grievances and to discover that our problems, which we had thought were unique to us, are commonly experienced in the Philippines.