Best interest of the child

This case is a dispute between the mother and father of a child born out of wedlock. Under the law (Article 216 Family Code), such child shall be in the custody of the mother if she is still below seven (7) years old or below the age of reason. But for the best interest of the child, the mother can also be deprived of such custody. How is the best interest of the child determined? And what are the instances when the mother can be deprived of such custody? These are the questions answered in this case of Dick and Marilyn.

Dick and Marilyn were sweethearts who decided to live together even before getting married. They stayed at the house of Marilyn’s parents, Martin and Mila, who accepted them preparatory to their eventual marriage. But before they got married, they begot a child whom they named Minnie. Since they were so concerned about taking care of Minnie, their marriage never took place, especially because of their frequent quarrels. So when Minnie was three years old, their relationship ended. Marilyn left their province to study dentistry in the city and turned over Minnie to her parents, with the intention of bringing Minnie with her at a later time.

Dick, however, took care and custody of Minnie and enrolled her in a school. But about seven months later, Marilyn’s parents Martin and Mila took Minnie from the school and brought her to their home on the strength of a Special Power of Attorney executed by Marilyn granting Martin and Mila full parental rights, authority and custody of Minnie. Consequently, Dick filed with the Regional Trial Court (RTC) a Petition for Habeas Corpus and Child Custody against Marilyn and her parents Martin and Mila.

At the hearing, Marilyn appeared with her daughter Minnie and expressed the desire for her daughter to remain in her custody. The following day, the RTC ruled that the custody of the three-year-old Minnie rightfully belongs to Marilyn, citing Article 213 of the Family Code which provides that “no child under seven years of age shall be separated from her mother…” The RTC likewise found that while Marilyn went to the city to study, her intention was to bring Minnie with her later on. So the RTC declared that it will not give further due course to the Petition of Dick. Was the RTC correct?

The Court of Appeals (CA) found that the RTC hastily dismissed the Petition and remanded the case to it for determination of who should exercise custody of Minnie. The CA declared that Dick’s allegation about Marilyn’s not having taken good care of and neglecting Minnie is a question of fact that must be resolved by trial. Nonetheless, the CA affirmed the RTC order granting custody to Marilyn pending the outcome of the trial since she has parental authority over her illegitimate child Minnie pursuant to Article 176 of the FC, but the RTC must still determine whether the best interest of Minnie will be served if she remains in the custody of Marilyn’s parents. And the CA also granted Dick a visitation right of two days, or more, if allowed by Marilyn.

According to the Supreme Court (SC) the CA is partially correct. The SC said that as a general rule, illegitimate children shall be under the parental custody of their mother (Article 176 FC), more so if the child is below seven years old (Article 213 FC). Courts will not deprive mothers of their custody absent any imperative cause showing the mother’s unfitness to exercise such authority and care like neglect, abandonment, unemployment, immorality, habitual drunkenness, maltreatment of the child, insanity or affliction with a communicable disease.

The CA’s directive to remand the case to the RTC to establish whether or not Marilyn is unfit to exercise parental authority and custody of Minnie is correct. The SC said that in all questions relating to the care, custody, education and property of the children, the latter’s welfare or best interest is paramount. The best interests of the minor refer to the totality of the circumstances and conditions as are most congenial to the survival, protection and feelings of security of the minor and contributing to her physical, psychological and emotional development.

So, the SC ruled that Minnie’s best interest demands that a proper trial be conducted by the RTC to determine if she had, indeed, been neglected and abandoned by Marilyn, rendering the latter unfit to exercise parental authority over her. And if Marilyn is found unfit, whether it is in Minnie’s best interest that she be in the custody of her father Dick rather than her grandparents, upon whom the law accords a far superior right to exercise substitute parental authority.

The SC, however, ruled that the CA erred in granting temporary custody to Dick for a limited period of one a month in addition to visitation rights which were based solely on Dick’s allegations. Pursuant to Section 18, of A.M. No. 03-04-04-SC, it is only after trial when the court renders judgment awarding custody of the minor to the proper party when the court may likewise issue a just and reasonable order permitting the parent who is deprived of custody and care of the minor, to visit and have temporary custody.

By granting temporary custody ahead of the trial, the CA overturned the presumption that no child under seven years old shall be separated from the mother with nothing but Dick’s bare allegations. Dick can only have visitation rights of two days per week without prejudice to Marilyn allowing him additional days. Dick may take Minnie out only upon the written consent of Marilyn (Masbate vs. Relucio, G.R. 235498, July 30, 2018).

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