SC: Petition for correction of birth certificate CANNOT resolve legitimacy, paternity issues

“The legitimacy and filiation of children cannot be collaterally attacked in a petition for correction of entries in the certificate of live birth.”

The Supreme Court (SC), through the ponencia of Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen, nullified and set aside the declarations of the Court of Appeals (CA) and the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Masbate City that upheld the legitimacy and filiation of an illegitimate child who had carried the surname of her alleged father. The Court held though that its decision was without prejudice to the refiling of the appropriate action before the proper court.

The SC held that the sole issue for resolution is whether or not the CA erred in affirming the RTC’s judgment allowing private respondent Joan Espenida Miller to continue using the surname Miller.

Joan is allegedly the illegitimate child of her mother Lennie Espenida with John Miller. The latter was legally married to Beatriz Marcaida with whom he has four children – petitioner Glenn and siblings Charles, Betty, and John Jr.

The SC held that the initiatory pleading before the RTC of petitioner Glenn Miller, who is now substituted by his surviving heirs, was a Petition for Correction of Entries in Joan’s birth certificate. In his RTC petition, Glenn prayed for the cancellation of Joan’s certificate of live birth. He also prayed that the RTC direct the Local Civil Registrar (LCR) of Gubat, Sorsogon to replace Joan’s surname, Miller, with Espenida, and that Joan use Espenida instead of Miller in all official documents.

The SC stressed that petitioners sought the correction of Joan’s surname in her birth certificate registered as LCR No. 825. They want Joan to use her mother’s surname, Espenida, instead of Miller, claiming that she was not an acknowledged illegitimate child of the late John Miller. This type of petition, according to the SC, is governed by Rule 108 of the Rules of Court on the Cancellation or Correction of Entries in the Civil Registry.

Citing Braza v. The City Civil Registrar of Himamaylan City, Negros Occidental, the Court held that “legitimacy and filiation can be questioned only in a direct action seasonably filed by the proper party, and not through collateral attack.” It added that impugning the legitimacy of a child is governed by Article 171 of the Family Code, not Rule 108 of the Rules of Court.

“What petitioners seek is not a mere clerical change. It is not a simple matter of correcting a single letter in private respondent’s surname due to a misspelling. Rather, private respondent’s filiation will be gravely affected, as changing her surname from Miller to Espenida will also change her status. This will affect not only her identity, but her successional rights as well. Certainly, this change is substantial,” held the Court.

After John Miller’s death, Joan, through her mother Lennie, filed before the RTC a Petition for Partition and Accounting of John’s estate with a prayer for preliminary attachment, receivership, support, and damages. Lennie presented Joan’s birth certificate which purportedly showed John to be her registered father.

Thereafter, Glenn filed the said separate petition seeking the cancellation of Joan’s birth certificate. He claimed that his father did not acknowledge Joan as a natural child, pointing out that the Miller patriarch’s signature was not in her birth certificate.Joan countered Glenn’s claims contenting that while her alleged father did not sign her birth certificate, John Miller openly and continuously recognized her as his child. She said that she grew up in his ranch and that it was John Miller who had financed her studies at John Miller Primary School. She also said that John Miller, in his holographic will, gave her 1/8 share of his estate and, in a 1987 document, had assigned Betty to act as her guardian and her inheritance administrator until she attains the age of majority. Joan also said Betty obtained an education plan for her upon John Miller’s bidding.

On November 26, 2004, the RTC issued a judgment in Joan’s favor and held that “due recognition of an illegitimate child in a record of birth, a will, a statement before a court of record, or in any authentic writing is, in itself, a consummate act of acknowledgment of the child, and no further action is required.” Glenn elevated the case to the CA which denied his appeal on June 30, 2011. The CA, applying Article 173 in relation to Article 173 of the Family Code, found that John’s holographic will, where he gave Joan 1/8 of his estate, had sufficiently established his paternity. Glenn moved for reconsideration but the same was denied by the CA in 2012. That same year, Glenn, through his surviving legal heirs, filed before the SC a Petition for Review on Certiorari against Joan and the Local Civil Registrar of Gubat, Sorsogon.

In the case at bar, the SC held that the sole issue for resolution is whether or not the CA erred in affirming the RTC’s judgment allowing Joan to continue using the surname Miller and that “legitimacy and filiation can be questioned only in a direct action seasonably filed by the proper party, and not through collateral attack.” It affirmed the assailed CA rulings insofar as they affirm the 2004 Judgment of Masbate RTC, Branch 48, which dismissed the Petition for Correction of Entries in Joan’s certificate of live birth.

The SC also resolved to treat the Memorandum of petitioners as a formal administrative complaint against Judge Jacinta B. Tambago of Branch 48, RTC, Masbate City. The administrative complaint is referred to the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) for proper investigation, report, and recommendation.

(SC : Legitimacy and Paternity Issues Cannot Be Resolved in Petition for Correction of Birth Certificate Entries. November 19, 2019. G.R. No. 200344, Miller v. Miller, August 28, 2019. For full text of the decision: