The Family Code clearly provides that a court declaration of presumptive death of a spouse is indispensable before the other spouse may marry again. Failure to comply with this requirement results not only in a void second marriage, but also opens the guilty spouse to a criminal charge of bigamy. Article 41 of the Family Code reads:
Art. 41. A marriage contracted by any person during subsistence of a previous marriage shall be null and void, unless before the celebration of the subsequent marriage, the prior spouse had been absent for four consecutive years and the spouse present has a well-founded belief that the absent spouse was already dead. In case of disappearance where there is danger of death under the circumstances set forth in the provisions of Article 391 of the Civil Code, an absence of only two years shall be sufficient.
For the purpose of contracting the subsequent marriage under the preceding paragraph the spouse present must institute a summary proceeding as provided in this Code for the declaration of presumptive death of the absentee, without prejudice to the effect of reappearance of the absent spouse.
In other words, an absence of 4 years, it being unknown whether the other spouse is still alive and the present spouse has a well-founded belief that the missing spouse is already dead, is a ground to ask the court for a declaration of presumptive death (this is a summary proceeding, not a special proceeding). The 4-year period, however, is reduced to 2 years in the following circumstances:
1. A person on board a vessel lost during a sea voyage, or an aeroplane which is missing, who has not been heard of for [two] years since the loss of the vessel or aeroplane.
2. A person in the armed forces who has taken part in a war, and has been missing for [two] years.
3. A person who has been in danger of death under other circumstances and his existence has not been known for [two] years.
There are 4 requisites for the declaration of presumptive death under Article 41 of the Family Code:
1. That the absent spouse has been missing for four consecutive years, or two consecutive years if the disappearance occurred where there is danger of death under the circumstances laid down in Article 391, Civil Code.
2. That the present spouse wishes to remarry.
3. That the present spouse has a well-founded belief that the absentee is dead.
4. That the present spouse files a summary proceeding for the declaration of presumptive death of the absentee.
As mentioned above, failure to seek a judicial declaration of presumptive death opens a party who contracts a second marriage to a charge of bigamy. The reason is this –
In a real sense, there are three parties to every civil marriage; two willing spouses and an approving State. On marriage, the parties assume new relations to each other and the State touching nearly on every aspect of life and death. The consequences of an invalid marriage to the parties, to innocent parties and to society, are so serious that the law may well take means calculated to ensure the procurement of the most positive evidence of death of the first spouse or of the presumptive death of the absent spouse after the lapse of the period provided for under the law. One such means is the requirement of the declaration by a competent court of the presumptive death of an absent spouse as proof that the present spouse contracts a subsequent marriage on a well-grounded belief of the death of the first spouse. Indeed, “men readily believe what they wish to be true,” is a maxim of the old jurists. To sustain a second marriage and to vacate a first because one of the parties believed the other to be dead would make the existence of the marital relation determinable, not by certain extrinsic facts, easily capable of forensic ascertainment and proof, but by the subjective condition of individuals. Only with such proof can marriage be treated as so dissolved as to permit second marriages. Thus, Article 349 of the Revised Penal Code has made the dissolution of marriage dependent not only upon the personal belief of parties, but upon certain objective facts easily capable of accurate judicial cognizance, namely, a judgment of the presumptive death of the absent spouse.
To be sure, this appears to be a relatively easier way of contracting another marriage. The problem, however, is that the second marriage is easily voided by the appearance of the “absentee” spouse (void ab initio or void from the beginning if both parties to the second marriage contracted the marriage in “bad faith”). The Family Code provides:
Art. 42. The subsequent marriage referred to in the preceding Article shall be automatically terminated by the recording of the affidavit of reappearance of the absent spouse, unless there is a judgment annulling the previous marriage or declaring it void ab initio.
A sworn statement of the fact and circumstances of reappearance shall be recorded in the civil registry of the residence of the parties to the subsequent marriage at the instance of any interested person, with due notice to the spouses of the subsequent marriage and without prejudice to the fact of reappearance being judicially determined in case such fact is disputed.
So, is a judicial declaration of presumptive death better than seeking an annulment or a declaration of nullity of the second marriage? There are no hard and fast rules. Suffice it to state that “the automatic termination of the second marriage upon the reappearance of the absent or missing spouse is a risk that the paties to said marriage knew they were taking when they entered into such marriage, so that if it does happen, they have no reason to complain” (Justice Alicia Sempio-Diy, Handbook on the Family Code of the Philippines).