“What then happens to the proceedings?”
Death is a certainty of life. All of us will have to pass away at some point in time. Thus, there is a possibility that a party may die while an action is pending in the trial or appellate court.
Only seven years into my practice, my client, a plaintiff in an action for rescission of a contract of sale of real property, died of a heart attack. His eldest daughter informed me of his death ten days thereafter. I was then faced with the question of what will happen to our case.
Will the case survive after the death of my client? The first thing I had to figure out was whether the death extinguished or terminated the case. Because it is an action to rescind a contract, his rights arising from it are generally transmitted to the heirs.
The Supreme Court, in the case of Cruz v. Cruz citing Bonilla v. Barcena, declared that “[t]he question as to whether an action survives or not depends on the nature of the action and the damage sued for. In the causes of action which survive, the wrong complained affects primarily and principally property and property rights, the injuries to the person being merely incidental x x x” (G.R. No. 173292, September 1, 2010).
If the causes of action do not survive, the injury complained is to the person, with the property and rights of property affected being incidental (G.R. No. 173292, September 1, 2010). Examples include: the death of a claimant for support, or death of a spouse in an action for nullity or annulment of marriage.
As explained in Bonilla: “x x x Article 777 of the Civil Code provides ‘that the rights to the succession are transmitted from the moment of the death of the decedent.’ From the moment of the death of the decedent, the heirs become the absolute owners of his property, subject to the rights and obligations of the decedent, and they cannot be deprived of their rights thereto except by the methods provided for by law” (G.R. No. 173292, September 1, 2010 citing Bonilla).
In the case of Cruz v. Cruz, Memoracion Cruz claimed that during her union with her common-law husband (deceased) Architect Guido M. Cruz, she acquired a parcel of land located in Tondo Manila; that the said lot was registered in her name; and that sometime in July 1992, she discovered that the title to the said property was transferred by Guido and the latter’s wife to their names in 1991 by virtue of a Deed of Sale dated February 12, 1973 (G.R. No. 173292, September 1, 2010).
Memoracion claimed that the said deed was executed through fraud, forgery, misrepresentation and simulation, and hence, was null and void. After presenting her evidence in chief, she died on October 30, 1996. Through a Manifestation, Memoracion’s counsel, Atty. Roberto T. Neri, notified the trial court on January 13, 1997 of the fact of her death, evidenced by a certificate thereof (G.R. No. 173292, September 1, 2010).
For his part, Guido filed a Motion to Dismiss on the grounds that (1) the plaintiff’s reconveyance action is a personal action which does not survive a party’s death, pursuant to Section 21, Rule 3 of the Revised Rules of Court, and (2) allowing the case to continue would result in a legal absurdity whereby one heir is representing the defendant, who is a co-plaintiff in this case (G.R. No. 173292, September 1, 2010).
“¨The trial court ordered and the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the case without prejudice to the prosecution thereof in the proper estate proceedings. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the RTC erred in dismissing the case. The petition for the annulment of a deed of sale involves property and property rights, and hence, survives the death of petitioner Memoracion (G.R. No. 173292, September 1, 2010).
The period to inform or give notice to the court of the party’s death and the legal representative/s is as important as determining whether the action survives. Section 16, Rule 3 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure requires that “it shall be the duty of his counsel to inform the court within thirty (30) days after such death of the fact thereof, and to give the name and address of his legal representative or representatives”.
The heirs of the deceased may be allowed to be substituted for the deceased, without requiring the appointment of an executor or administrator. The court shall forthwith order the said legal representative or representatives to appear and be substituted within a period of thirty (30) days from notice (Section 16, Rule 3).
The selection of the legal representative is not an easy task, because the lawyer would have to discuss with the heirs the reasons for his or her selection and the extent of the liability, if any. The selection is not the personal choice of the counsel. The heirs may even need to wait for the court’s appointment of an administrator or its confirmation of the executor named in the will; but in all cases the notice must be made within thirty days from the death.
In simpler words, the counsel of the deceased party must inform the court of the fact of death of the party and give the name and address of the legal representative/s. The court also has the duty to order the legal representative to appear and be substituted or to take the place of the deceased party. Both the counsel and court must comply with the requirements of the Rule.
Non-compliance with the rule on substitution of a deceased party renders the proceedings and judgment of the trial court infirm, because the court acquired no jurisdiction over the legal representatives or the heirs on whom the trial and the judgment would be binding (Brioso v. Mariano, G.R. No. 132765, January 31, 2003).
As we explained in Vda. de Salazar v. Court of Appeals (G.R. No. 121510, November 23, 1995):
“We should not lose sight of the principle underlying the general rule that formal substitution of heirs must be effectuated for them to be bound by a subsequent judgment, x x x… the general rule established not because the rule on substitution of heirs and that on appointment of a legal representative are jurisdictional requirements per se but because non-compliance therewith results in the undeniable violation of the right to due process.”
In the case of de la Cruz v. Joaquin, the petitioners asserted that the RTC’s Decision was invalid for lack of jurisdiction. They claim that the respondent died during the pendency of the case. There being no substitution by the heirs, the trial court allegedly lacked jurisdiction over the litigation – “the Rule on the substitution by heirs is not a matter of jurisdiction, but a requirement of due process” (G.R. No. 162788, July 28, 2005).
Thus, when due process is not violated, as when the right of the representative or heir is recognized and protected, noncompliance or belated formal compliance with the Rules cannot affect the validity of a promulgated decision. Mere failure to substitute for a deceased plaintiff is not a sufficient reason to nullify a trial court’s decision. The alleging party must prove that there was an undeniable violation of due process (G.R. No. 162788, July 28, 2005).
Formal substitution by heirs is not necessary when they themselves voluntarily appear, participate in the case, and present evidence in defense of the deceased. In the case of Napere v. Barbarona, there is really no violation of the right to due process; the proceedings cannot be nullified because the petitioner, who was in fact a co-defendant of the deceased, actively participated in the case (G.R. No. 160426, January 31, 2008).
The records show that the counsel of Juan Napere and petitioner continued to represent them even after Juan’s death. Hence, through counsel, the petitioner was able to adequately defend herself and the deceased in the proceedings below. Due process simply demands an opportunity to be heard and this opportunity was not denied the petitioner (G.R. No. 160426, January 31, 2008).
However, not all cases of death of a party in civil case will fall under Section 16, Rule 3 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. For example, if the action is for the recovery of money arising from a contract, and the defendant dies before the final judgment, it shall not be dismissed but shall be allowed to continue against the estate until the entry of judgment. Since the action is for the recovery of money and the deceased party is the defendant, Section 20 and not 16 of Rule 3 will apply.
The essence of due process is the reasonable opportunity to be heard and to submit any evidence available in support of one’s defense. When due process is not violated, as when the right of the representative or heir is recognized and protected, noncompliance or belated formal compliance with the Rules cannot affect the validity of a promulgated decision (G.R. No. 160426, January 31, 2008).