Cultivating Your Legacy: Understanding Probate and the Role of Wills in Estate Planning

“Wills are trumped by legal titles to real estate or beneficiary designations on financial accounts, retirement plans and insurance policies.”

Jean Chatzky, President & CEO of HerMoney, Personal Finance Columnist

By Realttorney®

When it comes to estate planning, many individuals may assume that simply creating a will is enough to ensure that their assets are distributed according to their wishes. However, there is much more to estate planning than just executing a Last Will and Testament.

One of the key considerations in estate planning is understanding probate and the role that will play in this process, especially in the context of the Philippine Law on Succession. Do you really need a Will or are there tools that are more appropriate to your current situation and circumstances?

According to the Civil Code of the Philippines, there are two kinds of will – notarial and holographic. A holographic will is one which is entirely written, dated, and signed by the hand of the testator. According to Article 810 of the Civil Code, “It is subject to no other form, and may be made in or out of the Philippines and need not be witnessed.

Meanwhile, a notarial will is one which is signed and sworn to by the Testator (or signed for him/her by a person in his/her presence at his/her express direction), then likewise signed and sworn to by three credible witnesses all in each other’s presence and acknowledged before a notary public, who is not obligated to retain a copy of the notarial will being notarized.

If you did execute a will, what happens next?

Article 838 states that “No will shall pass either real or personal property unless it is proved and allowed in accordance with the Rules of Court.” In addition, the Testator may, during his/her lifetime, petition the court having jurisdiction for the allowance of his will. In such case, the pertinent provisions of Rule 76 of the Rules of Court for the allowance of wills shall govern.

Therefore, the allowance or the presentation of a will is a legal process where a will is submitted to a court of competent jurisdiction to be probated. This is a mandatory process, and the probate of the will cannot be dispensed with. Therefore, unless the will is probated, the right of a person to dispose of his property may be rendered nugatory.

However, the Supreme Court of the Philippines held that in the probate of the will, the authority of the Philippine court is limited to ascertaining the due execution or the extrinsic validity of the will as provided by Section 1, Rule 75 of the Rules of Court. Due execution is “whether the testator, being of sound mind, freely executed the will in accordance with the formalities prescribed by law, as mandated by Sections 805 and 806 of the Civil Code.” [In The Matter of the Petition for the Probate of the Will of Consuelo Santiago Garcia, G.R. No. 204793, June 8, 2020]

Now you know that the probate process is overseen by a court and can be a lengthy and costly process, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. As an example, the case of the Probate of the Will of Consuelo S. Garcia was filed on August 11, 1997, was and decided with finality by the Supreme Court only on June 8, 2020. It took almost 23 years. Do you want your heirs to litigate for more than two decades?

This is why informed individuals choose to engage in estate planning to help simplify the probate process and ensure that their assets are distributed according to their wishes, at the soonest possible time, and at the least possible cost. Although I normally dissuade clients from executing a will, this estate planning tool still has its merit.

The Role of Wills in Probate. A will is a legal document that outlines a person’s wishes for the distribution of his/her assets after he/she passes away. As stated above, when a person dies, the will is presented to the court as part of the probate process.

The will serves as a roadmap for the court and the executor of the estate (the person appointed to manage the estate during the probate process) to follow when distributing the assets. If the will is valid and there are no challenges or disputes, the assets are distributed according to the instructions in the will.

If a person dies without a valid will (known as dying intestate), their assets will be distributed according to the Law on Intestate Succession under the Civil Code. I always say that the law on intestate succession is the estate plan of the State for those who did not create their own estate plan. The law on intestate succession distributes your assets to your relatives who you feel do not deserve to get a share of your estate.

Even though I would dissuade clients from executing a will, I would be remiss not to discuss the process of creating a Will in the Philippines.

For those who are convinced, creating a will is also an important part of estate planning, as it helps ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes. Here are some tips for creating a will:

1. Work with an Estate Planning Attorney. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you create a will that is tailored to your specific circumstances and meets all legal requirements. They can also help you navigate the probate process and ensure that your wishes are carried out as intended.

2. Identify Your Assets. Before creating a will, it is important to identify all your assets and how you would like them to be distributed. This includes bank accounts, shares of stock (listed or unlisted in the stock exchange), real estate, vehicles, investments, and all other types of personal properties.

3. Identify Your Compulsory and Voluntary Heirs. In general, when someone executes a will, their estate is typically composed of two main components: the legitime and the free portion. The legitime is a portion that is legally reserved for compulsory heirs and is distributed according to specific ratios outlined in the Civil Code of the Philippines. On the other hand, the free portion can be bestowed upon anyone (voluntary heirs), so long as the recipient is not legally prohibited from accepting an inheritance or a donation.

4. Name an Executor. Name an executor in your will who will be responsible for managing your estate during the probate process. This should be someone you trust who is organized and responsible and must be a resident of the Philippines.

5. Keep Your Will Updated. It is important to keep your will updated as your circumstances change. This includes changes in your assets, heirs, or executor.

Estate planning is a dynamic process. If you so desire to execute your last will and testament, then you should understand that as your circumstances in life change for the better or worse, after the will is executed, then you have the power and the choice to amend your will or scrap the old and create a new will even.

Avoiding Probate. If you are now having second thoughts about making or executing a will, then let me share with you why you should avoid probate at all costs. Here are several compelling reasons why you may want to avoid probate:

1. Time-consuming process: Probate proceedings can be lengthy, often taking years or even decades to complete. During this time, the assets of the deceased are tied up or frozen in limbo, causing delays in distributing them to compulsory and voluntary heirs, if any.

2. Costly: The probate process is an expensive endeavor, with various fees and costs associated with the process, including court fees, attorney fees, executor fees, and appraisal fees. These expenses can significantly reduce the overall value of the estate.

3. Lack of privacy: Probate is a public process, which means that the details of the decedent’s assets, debts, and heirs become part of the public record. This lack of privacy may not be desirable for individuals who value confidentiality or privacy.

4. Loss of control: The probate court oversees the distribution of assets according to the provisions or the terms of the will. However, when the estate is hotly contested the court has the final say in how the assets may be distributed, which may not align with the decedent’s desires or wishes. It is not outside the realm of the discretion of the Court to ask that the litigant-heirs enter into a compromise to put an end to the acrimonious litigation between formerly close relatives.

5. Family conflicts: Probate proceedings can often lead to family disputes and conflicts. It is impossible to guarantee with complete certainty that an individual’s estate will smoothly transfer to the heirs without any conflicts, particularly when the involvement of in-laws comes into play. Typically, a perceived unequal distribution of the estates among compulsory heirs engenders disagreements or challenges to the will. This conflict can further delay the distribution of assets and create emotional stress for the family members involved.

6. Business disruptions: If a decedent owned a thriving business, probate can disrupt its operations, especially if the court has to appoint a special executor to manage the business affairs during the probate process.

To avoid these potential drawbacks, individuals often employ estate planning strategies such as creating living trusts, designating beneficiaries on retirement accounts and life insurance policies, and gifting assets during their lifetime. These strategies can help bypass probate or simplify the process, ensuring a smoother transfer of assets to intended beneficiaries while minimizing costs and maintaining privacy.

Here are the options to consider avoiding probate through estate planning:

1. Irrevocable Living Trusts. An irrevocable living trust is a legal document that allows you to transfer ownership of your assets to a trustee while you are alive. This can help avoid probate, as the assets remain in the trust after you pass away and are distributed to your beneficiaries according to your wishes. This can help avoid the probate process altogether.

2. Gifting. This is commonly referred to as a donation. The National Internal Revenue Code allows for a PhP 250,000.00 tax-free donation by a donor to anyone. By planning for timely and regular donations to one’s heirs, the estate planner would shrink his/her gross estate so that when he/she passes away the estate will not be exposed to a high amount of estate tax.

3. Beneficiary Designations. Designating beneficiaries for retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and other assets is an important tool to avoid probate because it allows certain assets to pass directly to designated individuals or entities without going through the probate process. Key-Man Insurance for the owner of the business, life insurance policies of the decedent designating his/her children and spouse as beneficiaries, and retirement account proceeds are some concrete examples of this.

In summary, estate planning is an important process that can help ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes. Creating a will may be a part of this process, as it serves as a roadmap for the probate court and the executor of your estate.

If you are convinced to make a will, then it is important to act immediately and work with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that your wishes are carried out as intended. Remember to identify your assets, identify your heirs, name an executor, and keep your will updated.

But it is likewise important to consider ways to avoid the probate process, such as revocable living trusts, gifting, and beneficiary designations.

Hence, by taking the time to engage in estate planning and understanding the probate process and its pros and cons, you can help ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes and provide peace of mind for you and your loved ones.


Atty. Jojo is a real estate attorney, an estate planning attorney, a licensed real estate broker, and a PRC-accredited Lecturer/ Speaker for Training Programs in Real Estate. He is a Chartered Trust and Estate Planning (CTEP®) professional who is committed to educating Filipinos about the value and importance of having an estate plan in their lives.

Published by Atty. Jojo

A loving husband and devoted father; a gentleman farmer; a licensed real estate broker; a real estate & estate planning attorney; and a practicing Catholic.

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