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Getting a marriage annulled in the Philippines is hard. Did the Supreme Court just make it easier?

By Aytch Dela Cruz Published May 20, 2021 8:16 pm

Mandy Matafeo was hesitant to get married when she got pregnant with her first son. But because her parents did not want her baby to be born out of wedlock, she agreed to tie the knot with the father of her child.

“Nagkahiyaan na kaya tinuloy namin ‘yung kasal (We did not want to feel embarrassed, so we proceeded with the wedding),” said Mandy, who shared her story using a different name to protect her privacy. 

Marriage, however, did not make their relationship stronger. While they had blissful moments together after the wedding, even having another son two years later, her husband became irresponsible. 

She said her spouse did not provide any financial support to their family despite having a job as a restaurant manager. “As in zero, ‘yung income niya parang kaniya lang, parang buhay binata ba (his income was his alone, like he was still a bachelor),” Mandy revealed. 

At that point, she was also working full-time as part of a production team in a television network. Mandy was keeping the job to help her mother cover their household expenses and pay for the basic needs of her children. “Ako lahat (I was doing everything),” she said.

Bitter fights later on ensued between the couple because of his frivolous spending habits. There were even times when their heated arguments turned physical as she remembered at least two occasions when her husband dragged her on the floor out of anger.

“May time naman na he threatened me na magpapakamatay siya. Nagsaksak pa siya ng gunting sa tiyan. (There was also a time when he threatened to commit suicide. He stabbed himself in the stomach with a pair of scissors),” Mandy added. 

After years of living together, the couple emotionally drifted apart. The husband took an opportunity to work in Pampanga and spent more time away from his family, leaving Mandy alone to raise their sons. Soon she found out he was having an affair with a younger woman.

Familiar tale
It is a tale all too familiar for many Filipinos in broken homes. Unable to tolerate the reckless behavior of her husband any further, Mandy realized she only had two options: stay in an abusive relationship with him or leave. She chose the latter for the sake of her kids. 

Mandy now counts herself among the thousands of men and women who want to get out of their failed marriages. And in the absence of a divorce law in the Philippines, her only recourse was to file for annulment, citing “psychological incapacity” as a default ground in her petition. 

When the Supreme Court (SC) released a unanimous decision, modifying the interpretation of “psychological incapacity” as a legal concept and not a medical one, many people like Mandy took special interest even as the May 12 ruling refers only to nullity of marriage cases. 

When an expert witness is no longer needed, it can significantly reduce the cost of a case.

This is expected, according to registered psychologist turned lawyer Erin Sy, as it essentially relaxed some of the stringent rules by the courts to invalidate marriages. “When an expert [witness] is no longer needed, it can significantly reduce the cost of a case,” she said. 

Sy, who also requested not to use her real name for this story because of privacy concerns like Mandy, said the recent high court ruling penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen may encourage more people in troubled marriages to file for annulment or nullity of marriage.

“I know of many people who want to file but are being held back by the expenses, especially when they also have to engage the services of a psychologist or psychiatrist to provide expert testimony,” said Sy.

“Such services can be costly, as there aren’t too many licensed psychologists who do it. Then there were a few who already decided to file, but when the pandemic hit, which affected jobs, they withdrew,” she added.

Annulment vs nullity of marriage
In the legal world, there is a difference between "annulment" and "nullity of marriage." While both may lead toward the severance of marital ties between a lawfully wedded couple, the journey is not the same, according to veteran family lawyer Mylene S. Yumul-Espina. 

“When you file for nullity of marriage, it means that the marriage was void from the very beginning while, if you file for an annulment, it means it was a valid marriage but because of the presence of certain grounds, it can be annulled,” she explained. 

In other words, a wedding may be declared as something that never happened when one petitions for nullity of marriage. But, in annulment, the marriage of a couple was valid at the start but may be revoked when specific grounds have been proven to exist. 

Failure to fulfill the essential marital obligations on the part of at least one spouse is a consequence of psychological incapacity, which is a ground for the nullity of marriage and not annulment.

“Failure to fulfill the essential marital obligations on the part of at least one spouse is a consequence of psychological incapacity, which is a ground for the nullity of marriage and not annulment,” Yumul-Espina clarified. 

Both Sy and Yumul-Espina took the recent landmark ruling positively, saying it offered hope for people stuck in bad marriages, but they could not comment on the details of the decision per se since a full copy is yet to be released by the Supreme Court to the public. 

But they also do not think the services of a psychologist or a psychiatrist in hearing cases involving Article 36 of the Family Code will be totally dispensed with because it will still depend on the circumstances surrounding the case and what the courts will require as evidence.

A number of couples in the Philippines do not get to live through a happy and functional married life (Photo by Andy Zapata, Jr./The Philippine Star)

No longer mandatory
Article 36 of the Family Code says “[a] marriage contracted by any party who, at the time of the celebration, was psychologically incapacitated to comply with the essential marital obligations of marriage, shall likewise be void even if such incapacity becomes manifest only after its solemnization.”

Sy noted that the Family Code does not define psychological incapacity. It was the Supreme Court that confined its meaning to serious clinical or personality disorders and imposed stringent requirements at the time when there were already too many petitions being filed using Article 36 of the Family Code as the basis. 

“They (SC justices) are not saying that there is no need for a psychological report or evaluation. It just says that it is no longer mandatory. So, there will still be some cases where a psychological report might be needed,” Yumul-Espina said. 

For example, she said, if the person turned out to be homosexual, struggling with substance abuse, or burdened by any other psychological condition that makes him or her incapable of performing his or her marital obligations to a partner, and if a party can show proof of these conditions, then it may be enough to nullify their marriage.

“If it can be shown through his or her actions, through his or her testimony, or through documentary evidence that he or she is not complying with the obligations as a spouse, then the marriage can be declared null and void by the judge,” Yumul-Espina said. 

Not entirely new
Speaking as a psychologist who used to provide expert testimony in a number of Article 36 cases in the past, Sy implied the Leonen ruling is not entirely new, insofar as the requirement for an expert witness is concerned.

Sy said there were cases before when the SC ruled that what is required is totality of evidence, not necessarily a psychological examination of the person being declared to be psychologically incapacitated. 

She said that the primary reason psychologists or psychiatrists are being asked to testify in court is to help the lawyers establish the presence of psychological incapacity, and that takes a lot of work, because the lawyers cannot play psychologists. 

It is not easy to determine if a person is incapacitated.

“They are not the ones who are going to determine whether an individual is incapacitated because he or she has a certain disorder, or what caused it, and how it is connected to the person's childhood and developmental background,” according to Sy. 

Expert witnesses are expected to dig into the past of the couple, and it is not enough to show to the court that there were already signs of behavior or personality problems even before the marriage, or that a personality disorder has been identified.

“It also has to be shown that such can be traced back to childhood experiences, family, developmental background, et cetera,” said Sy, who last testified as an expert witness in a family court in 2018.

She said this process can be so tedious since no lawyer can fully understand and explain the entire history of a person, dating back from  childhood to adulthood, and what social or environmental factors may have contributed to the present behavior. 

“It is not easy to determine if a person is incapacitated unless you hear both sides, or gather information from various sources. A lot of times, one party will claim that the other party is the one who is psychologically incapacitated, but then it will turn out it is the other way around, or both of them,” said Sy.

Research and legwork
Moreover, the courts would often require psychologists to have gathered information from sources other than the client and his or her family. An expert witness needs to make earnest efforts to contact the other party and have informants from the side of the latter.

This demands a lot of research and legwork on the part of the psychologists so their services do not come cheap. It does not help that many clients have not known their spouses very well and thus cannot provide much information on their spouses' past. 

Many lawyers would also not want to take the risk of not presenting an expert witness when building their cases. In a lot of cases, it is practically just the expert witness that serves as the client's witness, with one or two other witnesses that can only give limited testimony.

“In such cases, when you take the psychologist or psychiatrist out of the equation, there may be practically nothing left to present as evidence. So, it's really up to the courts now—how stringent they would be in their requirements for Article 36 cases,” said Sy, adding that right now, even with an expert witness, it is difficult to have Article 36 petitions granted.

Yumul-Espina is aware of the general public view toward the annulment process—slow, painful, expensive, complicated—but she hopes it will not discourage anyone from taking this legal route to get out of a toxic relationship. 

She explained that every judge in a family court follows a standard procedure when hearing cases for annulment or nullity of marriage, and while our legal systems are not perfect, the Supreme Court over the years established some rules to help expedite the process.

Some married couples in dysfunctional marriages do not go through the legal process of separation because of the costs, but lawyers say there are still ways to help them. (Photo from Shutterstock)

Judicial affidavit rule
One of these is the "judicial affidavit" rule. Lawyers are now required to submit sworn statements from witnesses upon the filing of the petition or before the start of the main trial and not during the hearing itself, enabling court proceedings to move a lot quicker unlike in previous years.

Still, the standard procedure remains the same, beginning with the filing of the petition, serving of summons, conduct of a preliminary conference by the fiscal to determine whether there was collusion between the spouses, before going on to the pre-trial and the main trial itself.

Under our legal system, the Office of the Solicitor General also participates in all annulment or nullity of marriage trials to represent the government—either through a fiscal or a prosecutor—because the state aims to preserve the institution of marriages. 

As for the cost of the annulment process, Yumul-Espina said that also depends on the case and the lawyers’ rates. In the 23 years of her own private legal practice, she always applies the “no hearing, no billing” approach, especially for clients who are financially challenged. 

If we can’t help them get annulled, we will see if we can file a criminal case against their spouses.

Nevertheless, she does not believe that all legal remedies to end a marriage are made available only for the rich or those who can afford. People in less fortunate backgrounds, she said, may seek help from the Public Attorneys Office (PAO) or other organizations that offer free legal aid. 

A government lawyer shared the same perspective, adding that women trapped in abusive relationships may also consider filing criminal charges against their husbands under Republic Act 9262 or the Violence Against Women and Children Act (VAWC). 

“If we can’t help them get annulled, we will see if we can file a criminal case against their spouses… We have remedies for abuse. It’s really sad that many who come to us see their only escape from an abusive relationship is by cutting their marriage ties,” he said. 

Conjugal properties
In the case of Mandy, while she is also aware of VAWC, she opted to go the annulment route to  protect the interests of her legitimate children. Her husband is now living with his mistress and they also have a child together. Mandy said she wants to avoid any future conflict with them.

She knew as well she could have filed for legal separation but that would mean she would still be technically married. A lot is also at stake for her that might affect the future of her sons. So, despite the costs, grueling process and uncertainty, she is sticking to the annulment system. 

Mandy, who is now working in the corporate communications unit of a state-owned company, intends to reclaim full ownership of their conjugal properties, considering her husband did not contribute anything toward the purchase of such properties. These include lands, vehicles, and other possessions that she managed to acquire over the years under her married name with the help of her parents. Mandy finds it unfair if her estranged husband remains as co-owner by virtue of their marriage, which he did not honor. 

I just don’t want his illegitimate child to also lay claim to the things my parents and I worked so hard for.

“He benefited [from our relationship] for so many years. On my part, I just don’t want all of sudden... his illegitimate child might also lay claim to the things my parents and I worked so hard for,” Mandy said. 

The issue on properties is really a sensitive topic, according to Yumul-Espina, since the property concept of "absolute community" applies between the spouses, especially when they did not sign any prenuptial agreement before they got married. This concept means a 50-50 rule between the spouses, especially when the properties in question are of significant value, except for some personal effects or things that are worn or used by the individuals such as clothes and other items.

One way for someone like Mandy to claim full ownership of their conjugal properties, Yumul-Espina said, is to have a written agreement with her estranged husband, dissolving their property regime, and relinquishing whatever entitlements he has on their conjugal properties to their children, but such agreement must still be court-approved. 

In the absence of that court-approved agreement, “she has to prove that she is the innocent spouse and the husband is the guilty spouse, thereby forfeiting his share in the community assets,” according to the seasoned family law practitioner. 

Legalizing divorce
Like every other woman who is probably going through a rough annulment period just to end her marriage with the wrong person, Mandy hopes our legal system could make the entire process a little less complicated, faster, or just legalize divorce altogether. 

“If it were up to me, I would prefer to have a divorce procedure instead because it’s a lot faster and there are many grounds for divorce unlike annulment, which is not only costly but tedious,” Mandy said. She got married in 2008 under a traditional ceremony bound by Canon law. 

While she believes in the sanctity of marriage, Yumul-Espina understands what people like Mandy are going through. Not everyone gets lucky in choosing a partner, but no one should be denied the chance to get away from a marriage that actually failed, she said. 

“Naniniwala ako sa marriage pero naniniwala rin ako na hindi perpekto ang tao, na posibleng ang marriage akala mo solusyon pero ‘yun ‘yong problema. (I believe in marriage but I also believe that no one is perfect. It is possible that the marriage you thought was a solution can be a problem),” Yumul-Espina said.

The divorce bill in the Philippines is still languishing in the legislative mill.

At present, progress in the annulment petition Mandy filed in 2019 remains a waiting game. She has yet to confer with her lawyer on their next steps as some of their plans were delayed by the pandemic.

The divorce bill in the Philippines is still languishing in the legislative mill. Several proposed legislations were already filed before the House of Representatives and the Senate but none of these ever made it past the plenary in the 18th Congress.

In February 2020, House Bill 100 or the “Absolute Divorce Act of 2019” was approved before the House Committee on Family Relations. Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman principally authored the bill, which consolidated all proposed divorce related measures in the lower chamber. 

Meanwhile, its counterpart in the upper house, Senate Bill 356 or “An Act Instituting Absolute Divorce in the Philippines” introduced by Senator Risa Hontiveros, remains pending at the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality since July 2019.

For now, the Philippines remains as the only country in the world where divorce is still illegal.