In this jurisdiction, parties to a contract are free to stipulate the terms of agreement subject to the minimum ban on stipulations contrary to law, morals, good customs, public order, or public policy. Otherwise, the contract is denied legal existence, deemed “inexistent and void from the beginning.”For lack of relevant stipulation in the Agreement, these and other ancillary Philippine substantive law serve as default parameters to test the validity of the Agreement’s joint child custody stipulations.
At the time the parties executed the Agreement on 28 January 2002, two facts are undisputed: (1) Stephanie was under seven years old (having been born on 21 September 1995); and (2) petitioner and respondent were no longer married under the laws of the United States because of the divorce decree. The relevant Philippine law on child custody for spouses separated in fact or in law(under the second paragraph of Article 213 of the Family Code) is also undisputed: “no child under seven years of age shall be separated from the mother x x x.”(This statutory awarding of sole parental custody to the mother is mandatory, grounded on sound policy consideration,subject only to a narrow exception not alleged to obtain here.) Clearly then, the Agreement’s object to establish a post-divorce joint custody regime between respondent and petitioner over their child under seven years old contravenes Philippine law.
The Agreement is not only void ab initio for being contrary to law, it has also been repudiated by the mother when she refused to allow joint custody by the father. The Agreement would be valid if the spouses have not divorced or separated because the law provides for joint parental authority when spouses live together. However, upon separation of the spouses, the mother takes sole custody under the law if the child is below seven years old and any agreement to the contrary is void. Thus, the law suspends the joint custody regime for (1) children under seven of (2) separated or divorced spouses. Simply put, for a child within this age bracket (and for commonsensical reasons), the law decides for the separated or divorced parents how best to take care of the child and that is to give custody to the separated mother. Indeed, the separated parents cannot contract away the provision in the Family Code on the maternal custody of children below seven years anymore than they can privately agree that a mother who isunemployed, immoral, habitually drunk, drug addict, insane or afflicted with a communicable disease will have sole custody of a child under seven as these are reasons deemed compelling to preclude the application of the exclusive maternal custody regime under the second paragraph of Article 213.
It will not do to argue that the second paragraph of Article 213 of the Family Code applies only to judicial custodial agreements based on its text that “No child under seven years of age shall be separated from the mother, unless the court finds compelling reasons to order otherwise.” To limit this provision’s enforceability to court sanctioned agreements while placing private agreements beyond its reach is to sanction a double standard in custody regulation of children under seven years old of separated parents. This effectively empowers separated parents, by the simple expedient of avoiding the courts, to subvert a legislative policy vesting to the separated mother sole custody of her children under seven years of age “to avoid a tragedy where a mother has seen her baby torn away from her.”This ignores the legislative basis that “[n]o man can sound the deep sorrows of a mother who is deprived of her child of tender age.”
It could very well be that Article 213’s bias favoring one separated parent (mother) over the other (father) encourages paternal neglect, presumes incapacity for joint parental custody, robs the parents of custodial options, or hijacks decision-making between the separated parents. However, these are objections which question the law’s wisdom not its validity or uniform enforceability. The forum to air and remedy these grievances is the legislature, not this Court. At any rate, the rule’s seeming harshness or undesirability is tempered by ancillary agreements the separated parents may wish to enter such as granting the father visitation and other privileges. These arrangements are not inconsistent with the regime of sole maternal custody under the second paragraph of Article 213 which merely grants to the mother final authority on the care and custody of the minor under seven years of age, in case of disagreements.
Further, the imposed custodial regime under the second paragraph of Article 213 is limited in duration, lasting only until the child’s seventh year. From the eighth year until the child’s emancipation, the law gives the separated parents freedom, subject to the usual contractual limitations, to agree on custody regimes they see fit to adopt. Lastly, even supposing that petitioner and respondent are not barred from entering into the Agreement for the joint custody of Stephanie, respondent repudiated the Agreement by asserting sole custody over Stephanie. Respondent’s act effectively brought the parties back to ambit of the default custodial regime in the second paragraph of Article 213 of the Family Code vesting on respondent sole custody of Stephanie.
Nor can petitioner rely on the divorce decree’s alleged invalidity - not because the Illinois court lacked jurisdiction or that the divorce decree violated Illinois law, but because the divorce was obtained by his Filipino spouse - to support the Agreement’s enforceability. The argument that foreigners in this jurisdiction are not bound by foreign divorce decrees is hardly novel. Van Dorn v. Romillo settled the matter by holding that an alien spouse of a Filipino is bound by a divorce decree obtained abroad. There, we dismissed the alien divorcee’s Philippine suit for accounting of alleged post-divorce conjugal property and rejected his submission that the foreign divorce (obtained by the Filipino spouse) is not valid in this jurisdiction in this wise:
There can be no question as to the validity of that Nevada divorce in any of the States of the United States. The decree is binding on private respondent as an American citizen. For instance, private respondent cannot sue petitioner, as her husband, in any State of the Union. What he is contending in this case is that the divorce is not valid and binding in this jurisdiction, the same being contrary to local law and public policy.
It is true that owing to the nationality principle embodied in Article 15 of the Civil Code, only Philippine nationals are covered by the policy against absolute divorces the same being considered contrary to our concept of public policy and morality. However, aliens may obtain divorces abroad, which may be recognized in the Philippines, provided they are valid according to their national law. In this case, the divorce in Nevada released private respondent from the marriage from the standards of American law, under which divorce dissolves the marriage.
x x x x
Thus, pursuant to his national law, private respondent is no longer the husband of petitioner. He would have no standing to sue in the case below as petitioner’s husband entitled to exercise control over conjugal assets. As he is bound by the Decision of his own country’s Court, which validly exercised jurisdiction over him, and whose decision he does not repudiate, he is estopped by his own representation before said Court from asserting his right over the alleged conjugal property. (Emphasis supplied)
We reiterated Van Dorn in Pilapil v. Ibay-Somera to dismiss criminal complaints for adultery filed by the alien divorcee (who obtained the foreign divorce decree) against his former Filipino spouse because he no longer qualified as “offended spouse” entitled to file the complaints under Philippine procedural rules. Thus, it should be clear by now that a foreign divorce decree carries as much validity against the alien divorcee in this jurisdiction as it does in the jurisdiction of the alien’s nationality, irrespective of who obtained the divorce."
Nonetheless, as Stephanie is by now about 15 years old, the Court remands the case for further proceedings to the RTC in order to determine the best interest of the child insofar as parental custody is concerned."in the matter of child custody, the mutual will of the child’s parents takes precedence in the absence of circumstances that justify recourse to the law."