Published 7 May 2021, The Daily Tribune

In celebration of the upcoming Mothers’ Day, I decided to write about a fairly recent development in Family Law related to legitimate children and their mothers.

To recall, a reading of Article 176 of the Family Code shows that the sole instance the surname of the mother may be used by the child as his/her own surname is only when such child is illegitimate. In fact, such illegitimate child may even use the surname of the father upon express recognition of filiation by the latter through record of birth or upon his admission in a public document or private handwritten instrument.

Conversely, the case is different for legitimate children, which must use the surname of their father in most, if not all, instances.

However, in the case of Alanis III v. Court of Appeals (G.R. 216415), decided on 11 November 2020 (but only published in February 2021), the Supreme Court (SC) made a pronouncement that legitimate children can now use the surname of their mother as their own last name without being considered “illegitimate.”

The case involves a legitimate child, Anacleto B. Alanis III, who filed a petition to change his surname to Ballaho — the maiden name of his mother who had singly-handedly raised him and his siblings. According to petitioner, he had used his solo parent’s maiden name in all his documents, transactions, records, including those for school, since his parents’ separation when he was five years old.

Despite proof of his records, the petition was denied by the Zamboanga City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 12, which denial was affirmed by the Court of Appeals (CA). In denying the petition, the lower court ratiocinated that to allow petitioner to drop his surname is in violation of Article 364 of the Civil Code which states that “Legitimate and legitimated children shall principally use the surname of the father.”

In the 15-decision penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the SC ruled that the RTC’s application of Article 364 of the Civil Code is erroneous. The SC clarified that the word “principally” in the Article 364 does not mean “exclusively.” Accordingly, “where the text of a law allows for an interpretation that treats women and men more equally, that is the correct interpretation. This gives ample room to incorporate into Article 364 the State policy of ensuring the fundamental equality of women and men before the law, and no discernible reason to ignore it.”

The High Court also faulted the lower court for failing to consider the spirit and mandate of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Republic Act 7192 or the Women in Development and National Building Act, and Article II, Section 14 of the 1987 the Constitution — which all require the State to “take the appropriate measures to ensure the fundamental equality of women and men before the law.”

The SC likewise criticized the RTC’s reasoning as it further encodes patriarchy in our system. According to the High Court, “patriarchy becomes encoded in our culture when it is normalized. The more it pervades our culture, the more its chances to infect this and future generations. If a surname is significant for identifying a person’s ancestry, interpreting the laws to mean that a marital child’s surname must identify only the paternal line renders the mother and her family invisible.”

From the foregoing mandate, the SC instructed courts — just like all other government departments and agencies — to ensure the fundamental equality of women and men before the law.

On that note, a snappy salute to all mothers.

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