Supreme Court of the Philippines

In landmark case, Supreme Court abandons ‘cruel’ rule in nullity of marriage

Lian Buan
When before, psychological incapacity must be a clinical diagnosis, now it's the judge who will decide based on totality of evidence. It still is not divorce, says the Court.

In a landmark Family Code ruling, the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that psychological incapacity as a ground to declare nullity of marriage need not be a clinical diagnosis, but instead be based on a totality of evidence that is up for the judge to decide.

This rule, which is the second of what is known in family law as the Molina guidelines, made it hard for couples to declare their marriages null.

In a ponencia by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the Court said: “This Court now categorically abandons the second Molina guideline. Psychological incapacity is neither a mental incapacity nor a personality disorder that must be proven through expert opinion.”

“Ordinary witnesses who have been present in the life of the spouses before the latter contracted marriage may testify on behaviors that they have consistently observed from the supposedly incapacitated spouse. From there, the judge will decide if these behaviors are indicative of a true and serious incapacity to assume the essential marital obligations,” the newly-released 54-page ruling said.

The ruling was first announced through a press release in May.

It will effectively make declaration of nullity of marriages a little easier than it was before, continuing Leonen’s streak of decisions challenging conservative views on family in predominantly Catholic Philippines.

Not divorce

But it is still not divorce, said the Court.

Under Article 36 of the Family Code, a marriage is null and void if one of the spouses “at the time of the celebration, was psychologically incapacitated to comply with the essential marital obligations of marriage.” The provision stands “even if such incapacity becomes manifest only after its solemnization.”

The requirement that the psychological incapacity must have been existing at the time of the marriage will still be complied.

“This distinguishes psychological incapacity from divorce. Divorce severs a marital tie for causes, psychological or otherwise, that may have developed after the marriage celebration,” said the ruling.

A bill that seeks to legalize absolute divorce in the Philippines hurdled the House committee on population and family relations in February 2020. House Bill (HB) No. 100, or the proposed Absolute Divorce Act, is authored by longtime advocate, Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman. 

‘Cruel’

Filing for nullity of marriage is notorious to couples who have gone through it, as well as their friends and family. It can be laborious, emotionally taxing, and very expensive.

“To comply with the second Molina guideline, psychologists and psychiatrists, when serving as expert witnesses, have been forced to assign a personality disorder and pathologize the supposedly psychologically incapacitated spouse. This cruelty could not have been the intent of the Code Committee,” said the Court.

By abandoning this rule, the Court has assigned judges to examine totality of evidence.

In such cases, a root cause has to be identified.

“From this, proof of juridically antecedent psychological incapacity may consist of testimonies describing the environment where the supposedly incapacitated spouse lived that may have led to a particular behavior,” said the Court.

Examples of these, according to the Court, is a violent environment that the spouse grew up in as a child, or a history of abusive romantic relationships before the subject marriage.

“The same can be said for child abuse. Trauma research shows that our past, if not properly healed, heavily affects our present,” said the Court.

In all, the Supreme Court said: “The right to choose our intimate partners is part of our right to autonomy and liberty, an inherent part of human dignity. Ultimately, should the State interfere with these choices, it should do so only when public interest is imperiled.”

The root case

These landmark pronouncements were contained in a nullity of marriage case, called Tan Andal vs Andal, a story of a couple who has a child.

The woman filed for a nullity of marriage first, alleging that her husband was a drug addict who, apart from not contributing to the finances, was stealing from the woman’s business establishment. The man also neglected obligations to the daughter, the woman said, became violent, and did bizarre things like prohibiting their nanny to give medicines to their vomiting child, saying she only needed to eat mangoes.

The trial court declared their marriage null and void, gave sole custody of the daughter to the woman, and sole ownership of an apartment complex to the woman, too.

The man appealed the property and custody aspect of the trial court’s ruling. He also prayed for the nullity of their marriage, turning the tables on his wife, and saying she was the one who was violent, and “would even inflict corporal punishment on their daughter.”

The Court of Appeals (CA) reversed the trial court and declared the marriage valid and subsisting. The CA said the physician who made the diagnosis of the man’s psychological incapacity could not have competently done so without interviewing the man.

In going to the Supreme Court, the woman said: “The [Molina] guidelines have unintentionally made it complicated and burdensome for a party to be released from a marriage that has legitimately broken down.”

“Tthe State’s protection of the institution of marriage should not be ruthless nor unjustifiably intrude into a person’s rights to autonomy and human dignity,” said the woman.

The Supreme Court declared the marriage null and void, using its modified guidelines, saying the man has a personality structure formed primarily through his childhood and adult experiences, well before the marriage.

The Court also ruled the psychological incapacity is enduring “and can manifest again if he is forced to stay with her.”

The Supreme Court awarded the property to the woman, having established that it was acquired through a donation from the wife’s aunt, and developed by her. Because the daughter is no longer a minor, the Court said she can decide how to relate to her father.

In conclusion, the Court said: “That only a few cases were found to have satisfied the Molina guidelines is, supposedly, in accordance with the Constitution on the inviolability of marriage.”

“It is time for a comprehensive but nuanced interpretation of what truly constitutes psychological incapacity,” said the Court. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.