In ECC-related death benefit claims, dependent parents as beneficiaries include biological parents in case the decedent was adopted.

G.R. No. 192531, 12 November 2014

Petitioner Bernardina P. Bartolome initiated a claim for death benefits under PD 626 with the Social Security System (SSS) at San Fernando City, La Union, over the death of her son John Colcol (John), who she gave up for adoption, and alleged that she was the sole remaining beneficiary. Previously, John was employed as electrician by Defendant Scanmar Maritime Services, Inc., on board the vessel Maersk Danville. He was covered by the government’s Employees’ Compensation Program (ECP). Unfortunately, he met an accident on board the vessel wherein steel plates fell on him resulting in his death.

When petitioner filed her claim, the SSS denied it stating that she was no longer the parent of John as he was legally adopted by Cornelio Colocol based on the documentary evidence submitted by petitioner herself. On appeal, the Employees’ Compensation Commission (ECC) affirmed the SSS ruling through a decision dated 17 March 17 2010 citing Rule XV, Sec. 1(c)(1) of the Amended Rules on Employees’ Compensation.

HELD: Petitioner was entitled to receive the claim for death benefits. “Based on Cornelio’s death certificate, it appears that John’s adoptive father died on October 26, 1987, or only less than three (3) years since the decree of adoption on February 4, 1985, which attained finality. As such, it was error for the ECC to have ruled that it was not duly proven that the adoptive parent, Cornelio, has already passed away.

The ECC Rule limiting death benefit claims to the legitimate parents is contrary to law. “Rule XV, Sec. 1(c)(1) of the Amended Rules on Employees’ Compensation deviates from the clear language of Art. 167 (j) of the Labor Code, as amended…” Hence, it was held that “Rule XV of the Amended Rules on Employees’ Compensation is patently a wayward restriction of and a substantial deviation from Article 167 (j) of the Labor Code when it interpreted the phrase ‘dependent parents’ to refer to ‘legitimate parents.’”

As the law does not define “dependent parents”, it should be understood to have a general and inclusive scope. Thus, “the term ‘parents’ in the phrase ‘dependent parents’ in the afore-quoted Article 167 (j) of the Labor Code is used and ought to be taken in its general sense and cannot be unduly limited to ‘legitimate parents’ as what the ECC did. The phrase ‘dependent parents’ should, therefore, include all parents, whether legitimate or illegitimate and whether by nature or by adoption. When the law does not distinguish, one should not distinguish. Plainly, ‘dependent parents’ are parents, whether legitimate or illegitimate, biological or by adoption, who are in need of support or assistance.

“Moreover, the same Article 167 (j), as couched, clearly shows that Congress did not intend to limit the phrase ‘dependent parents’ to solely legitimate parents. At the risk of being repetitive, Article 167 provides that ‘in their absence, the dependent parents and subject to the restrictions imposed on dependent children, the illegitimate children and legitimate descendants who are secondary beneficiaries.’ Had the lawmakers contemplated ‘dependent parents’ to mean legitimate parents, then it would have simply said descendants and not ‘legitimate descendants.’ The manner by which the provision in question was crafted undeniably show that the phrase ‘dependent parents’ was intended to cover all parents – legitimate, illegitimate or parents by nature or adoption.”

The law is clear that “the biological parents retain their rights of succession to the estate of their child who was the subject of adoption. While the benefits arising from the death of an SSS covered employee do not form part of the estate of the adopted child, the pertinent provision on legal or intestate succession at least reveals the policy on the rights of the biological parents and those by adoption vis-à-vis the right to receive benefits from the adopted.”

As a result, it was held that “Cornelio’s death at the time of John’s minority resulted in the restoration of petitioner’s parental authority over the adopted child.”

“Moreover, John, in his SSS application, named petitioner as one of his beneficiaries for his benefits under RA 8282, otherwise known as the ‘Social Security Law.’ While RA 8282 does not cover compensation for work-related deaths or injury and expressly allows the designation of beneficiaries who are not related by blood to the member unlike in PD 626, John’s deliberate act of indicating petitioner as his beneficiary at least evinces that he, in a way, considered petitioner as his dependent. Consequently, the confluence of circumstances – from Cornelio’s death during John’s minority, the restoration of petitioner’s parental authority, the documents showing singularity of address, and John’s clear intention to designate petitioner as a beneficiary – effectively made petitioner, to Our mind, entitled to death benefit claims as a secondary beneficiary under PD 626 as a dependent parent.”

In sum, “the Decision of the ECC dated March 17, 2010 is bereft of legal basis. Cornelio’s adoption of John, without more, does not deprive petitioner of the right to receive the benefits stemming from John’s death as a dependent parent given Cornelio’s untimely demise during John’s minority. Since the parent by adoption already died, then the death benefits under the Employees’ Compensation Program shall accrue solely to herein petitioner, John’s sole remaining beneficiary.”