Part 5: Annulment scam
(READ: Part 1: The annulment business)
MANILA, Philippines – Finally, Josie (not her real name) was going to get a second chance in life and love. At 29, it was still not too late.
Her boyfriend wanted to marry her and bring her to America. There was only one problem: she was still married to her first husband.
She secured an annulment only to find out she was scammed. Hers is not an isolated case. (READ: Delete that marriage certificate)
Josie’s first marriage to her first boyfriend was caused by a jumble of events triggered by rebellion and honor. She was only 17 when she ran away from home. By 19, she was married and pregnant.
With the baby’s arrival came her husband’s departure. He went off to work in construction sites and his absence became more frequent.
The love story came back to a familiar beginning, with Josie running away – back to the parents, with her baby in tow.
Josie met her fiancé online. They have been corresponding since 2013 and he has come to the Philippines twice to visit her. Last year, he filed for a fiancée visa to bring her to America.
The thorny issue of her first marriage came up again.
Gezebel (not her real name), a colleague at work, offered to help. Gezebel knew a lawyer friend who handled annulment cases.
Josie called him on the phone and after several conversations agreed to meet at a Chinese restaurant in Santiago City. The lawyer quoted her P180,000 for an all-in annulment package and decision delivered within 6 months.
At their meeting, which Gezebel accompanied her to, Josie handed him the money and thought that her troubles would soon be over. Josie met her lawyer only twice, once to hand over the money to pay for handling the case and a second time, when he handed her a Certificate of No Marriage (CENOMAR), and an annotated marriage certificate.
Both are documents issued by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA, formerly the National Statistics Office) to reflect a person’s civil status. For someone who has never been married, a CENOMAR will certify “singleness”. (In the case of someone who has been previously married, a variation of the CENOMAR – reading like a track record – will be issued, listing all marriages entered into by an individual.)
In the case of an annulment, the couple’s original marriage certificate is issued but with an annotation on the right side. The annotation verifies that the marriage was annulled and lists details like date of the court decision and name of issuing judge.
There was no court decision, but Josie did not think to look for one.
During her interview at the US embassy, her papers were checked and re-checked.
Josie was asked to re-verify her papers with the PSA. It turned out her marriage to her first husband was still intact.
Josie had been scammed. She confronted Gezebel whose defense was she only knew the lawyer from her hometown but had no idea he would do such a thing.
She called her lawyer, angry and upset. The lawyer insisted that the papers were real. He never took her calls again until finally the number could no longer be contacted.
Josie has re-filed her annulment with another lawyer who asked for P150,000 to handle her case. Now that she’s going through the process again and has learned more about it, she realizes how her lawyer had taken advantage of her.
Josie has gone directly to the court where her new annulment case was filed to make sure that it has been assigned a civil case number. She regularly meets her lawyer in his office to discuss the status of her case.
“Ang hirap-hirap. Mas mahal pa yun pag-scam sa akin kaysa dito sa totoo kong pag-file,” said Josie. (It’s so hard. I paid more for the scam than my real annulment.)
Forged court decision
Like Josie, Lani (not her real name) thought she was finally changing her life. After 18 years of separation from her first husband, 47-year-old Lani was engaged and set to go to America.
In her hometown in southern Philippines, her cousin referred her to a friend who connected her to a court interpreter who, in turn, linked her to a lawyer who could handle her case. The lawyer asked her for P280,000 for a fast-track package annulment.
In 2013, her case was filed in a Cotabato court under Judge Cader Indar. The decision came out in 6 months, a neat bundle comprised of a court decision signed by Indar, a CENOMAR and annotated marriage certificate.
She presented her papers to the US embassy as a requirement for her fiancée visa and waited. After 6 months, she made a follow-up and was asked to re-verify her papers with the PSA.
Lani told her lawyer about this and he insisted that they would take care of the re-verification themselves.
Not satisfied, she went to the Cotabato court. Lani’s case did not exist.
Not only that, Indar had already been dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2012, the year before she received her court decree for “the reprehensible act of issuing decisions that voided marital unions, without conducting judicial proceedings. Such malfeasance not only makes a mockery of marriage and its life-changing consequences, but likewise grossly violates the basic norms of truth, justice and due process.” (READ: Part 2: Cotabato issues spurious annulment documents)
Also in Cebu
In 2011, a fake annulment scam was uncovered in Cebu. A secretary of a law firm was allegedly handing out fake court decisions by forging the signatures of judges. The secretary, whose whereabouts are unknown, reportedly charged P200,000 for the issuance of a marriage decision.
The scam was uncovered when civil registry officer Evangeline Abatayo asked 20 RTC judges and 11 notaries-public for their specimen signatures. It was then found that the signatures did not match some of the court decisions
That same year and also in Cebu, Aileen Colina Bell filed a case of disbarment against her lawyer, Luis Diores Jr, whom she had hired to annul her marriage to a German.
Her decision was penned by Judge Olegario Sarmiento Jr of Cebu RTC Branch No. 24, which is a family court.
It was only when Bell tried to have her documents authenticated in the court that she found that the court order was fake – two years after she had gotten the decision.
Sarmiento and Judge Ester Veloso, another judge whose signature was reportedly forged in annulment decisions, were implicated in fake annulment decisions which were discovered after a civil registry officer noticed a typographical error in a court decision and went to Sarmiento’s court to verify it.
Faking court decisions and civil registry documents fall under the crime of falsification of public documents, while receiving money for doing so is estafa.
Falsification of public documents carries a penalty of two years, 4 months up to 6 years while the maximum penalty for estafa is 20 years.
According to the National Bureau of Investigation, fixers or those involved in annulment scams are usually one-off small time operators who cannot be boxed into a certain profile.
“It varies. You cannot say that there is only one process involved,” said Dennis Siyhian, executive officer of the anti-fraud division of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
According to Siyhian, the usual personalities involved are “fixers” who claim to work in the court or claim to know someone who works in the court. The victim is usually someone who is referred to that person through a trusted friend or relative.
“There is a demand for this service so there will be people who will try to meet that demand and make money,” said Siyhian.
Siyhian cited an example of a case handled by the NBI to illustrate a typical scenario.
A petitioner wanted to get an annulment and asked a relative if he knew anyone who could help. That relative referred someone (Friend 1) who knew a court employee (Friend 2).
Friend 1 asked for P150,000 as payment to fix the case. Later, the relative claimed that Friend 1 actually asked for P250,000, the P150,000 was only a down payment.
A packet of court documents were turned over to the petitioner which turned out to be fake.
An entrapment operation was set up by the NBI and Friend 2 (the court employee) was charged with estafa and falsification of documents. In his defense, Friend 2 said he was just a go-between, there was another person who actually prepared the bogus documents – a Friend 3.
The scenario is typical of how the annulment scam unfolds.
The trail usually starts off by word of mouth. Someone needs an annulment and asks a friend or relative if they know anyone. The friend says they know someone (who may in turn know someone else) who works on the inside and makes things happen.
“It is easy to fake court documents, that’s just printed on bond paper. They can easily be copied. The dry seal (on the court decision) can be bought,” said Siyhian.
The ease of faking documents, the low capital required to set up an operation and the potentially high returns of anywhere between P180,000-P280,000 per transaction make it a lucrative operation.
“You can get away with it – initially. But at some point, you will get caught,” said Siyhian.
“We conduct a court verification with the issuing court to check if the decision is authentic. We do not issue an annotated marriage certificate if we find that the court documents are fake,” said Aurora Reolalas, chief of the vital statistics division of the NSO. (READ: Gov’t warning: Make sure annulment documents are real)
Likewise, civil registry officers may also do their own spot checks of court documents to look out for typographical errors, inconsistencies in the details (such as the address on the marriage certificate not matching the residence stated in the court decision).
Ramon Matabang, chief of the civil registry office of Quezon City, personally writes to judges to confirm the issuance of a decree. “If I don’t get a reply from the addressee-judge but get a reply from a court personnel under the judge, I will re-verify by writing the judge again to be sure.”
Foreign embassies also conduct their own independent verification process directly with the PSA.
The owner of the document may also be held liable. “The presumption of the law is as the presenter of the document, you are the author of that document. The burden of proof is on you to prove otherwise,” said Siyhian.
Undoubtedly, low level of understanding of the law has a part to play. Petitioners desperate to be free of the legal bonds that continue to tie them to a failed marriage and eager to do it in the easiest way possible fall prey to the sweet promise of an annulment. And as former dean of the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law Pacifico Agabin pointed out, the fact that most Philippine laws are written in English does not help.
“That is the main reason why many Filipinos are considered non-law abiding,” said Agabin. “How will they follow the law when they do not understand it?”
The UP College of Law translated certain laws like the Civil Code into Filipino and other dialects. But translating the law is one thing, disseminating it en masse is another.
“To my knowledge, there is no government office that has been assigned to disseminate laws translated into Filipino to the public,” said Agabin.
Also in the US
Outside Philippine shores, other organizations are claiming they can arrange one’s annulment.
DivorceinthePhilippines.com, which according to the information listed in its contact page, is based in Minnesota, USA. It requires subscription to their site before receiving information about their services. We subscribed to the site and sent an email inquiry, but have yet to receive a reply, as of this writing.
We did uncover a YouTube ad for divorceinthephilippines.com which promises that “divorce in the Philippines” is not impossible and that they can arrange for you to marry your Filipina girlfriend.
Ads for sites like divorceinthephilippines.com usually appear in on-line dating websites.
Dada (not her real name), 40, met her American husband on one such dating site. They got married in non-Catholic rites in the Philippines last 2010. According to Dada, her annulment was arranged in the US by a lawyer her husband contracted for $6,000.
The lawyer who is married to a Filipina, supposedly had a contact in Davao who, in turn, arranged for the annulment.
When asked about the details of her court proceedings, Dada did not know in what court her case was filed because she did not make a court appearance. All she knows is that she got her CENOMAR.
“Claiming no-appearance should already be a red flag. It is impossible to proceed with a case without a court appearance – even just one,” said Jeanie Pulido, a lawyer who handles annulment cases. “The Supreme Court states that the petitioner must appear to submit his or her testimony.”
Irene Bianca Distura, deputy director of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, said that it is for the petitioner’s own protection. “As a matter of due process, the court has to ensure the identity of the one filing the case.”
Now Dada is anxious. Her papers may be fake. If proven, she may be charged with bigamy or with adultery, a criminal offense for which she can be imprisoned up to 6 years.
Peace of mind is something that cannot be bought or guaranteed by even the best falsified court decree. – Rappler.com
(To be concluded: Part 6: Recto: Certified fake)
This story is part of the series, “The annulment business", on annulment mills and annulment scams. Reporting for this project was supported with a grant from the Journalism for Nation Building Foundation.