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Legal 411 by Alona C. Mercado

Thanksgiving and family

by Alona C. Mercado

In normal times, my family hosts Thanksgiving at our house. In normal times, anywhere from 40 to 70 members of my extended family drop by the house to share in the holiday. In normal times, my house is full of laughter, children of all ages running around, the titas playing a boisterous game of bingo into the night, lots of food to eat and take home as baon, and happy memories are made. In normal times.

However, these are not normal times. In keeping with the Restricted – Orange level for the city, our Thanksgiving this year was vastly different. Like other families throughout Winnipeg, guest lists were paired down to meet the 10-person limit. It’s ironic because just a month ago my Nanay, Ninang and I were starting to talk about Thanksgiving and how we would have to make the difficult choice of cutting down our guest list to 50. Circumstances beyond our control took that choice away from us. COVID took that choice away from us. I pray that it doesn’t take Christmas away from us too.

This global pandemic has reshaped how family and friends gather and celebrate, worship and mourn. It has taught all of us the importance of family; especially for those who are not able to spend time with family because of travel restrictions, health concerns and lock-down rules throughout the world.

But when we say family, who do you mean? The traditional nuclear family of parents and their children? Do you also include your cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandparents? But in a Filipino family, what exactly do you mean by “pinsan,” “tita,” “tito,” “pamangkin,” “lolo” and “lola?” Do you call all your Lolo and Lola’s siblings Lolo and Lola as well? Or does it only include lineal blood relations? Or does it include people who have been part of your lives for as long as you can remember?

For example, if I looked at my family just in Winnipeg, I legally have no nieces and nephews. However, the Christmas database my sister and cousin maintain tells a vastly different story. Why? Because for me, my pamangkins are the children of all my cousins (1st, 2nd and 3rd cousins included). I know this is true for many of us – family is family.

However, regardless of how vast, far-reaching and inclusive Filipino families can be, the law does not recognize this. Consider this scenario: Maria marries Juan, a widower with three young children, against the wishes of her family. She never speaks to them again. The couple does not have any children together. Maria loves, raises and considers Juan’s three children as her own. They live a long and happy life together. Neither Juan nor Maria has a Last Will and Testament. They believe that it’s bad luck to talk about such things. Juan dies but all his assets (house and bank accounts) are jointly owned with his wife. Therefore, she automatically inherits those assets. A few years later, Maria dies. Their three children go to see a lawyer to begin the process of dealing with their mother’s estate. They are in for a rude awakening.

When an individual dies without a will, the Intestate Succession Act of Manitoba dictates who the beneficiaries of an estate are. It is a strict reading of family based on lineal blood relationships. In our scenario, although Maria raises the children as her own, she never legally adopted them. In the eyes of the law, she is “only their stepmother.” There are no provisions in the law for stepchildren to inherit from their stepmother. In our scenario, the three children Maria loved as her own would not be entitled to a single cent from her (and by extension, Juan’s) estate because there is no blood relationship linking Maria to the children. Her estate would be given to her legal blood relatives.

Is this fair? Is this moral? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Regardless of how we answer these two questions, the law is clear. Which is why it is very important for everyone to make a Last Will and Testament to ensure that their loved ones are properly taken care of. For blended families where the non-biological parent does not adopt the children, making a Will is the best way to ensure that the children you love as your own inherit from your estate. For couples or single people with no children of their own but who love and consider their pamangkins or inaanaks as their children, they can also use their Wills to make them their beneficiaries.

One day soon this global pandemic will end, and we will once again be able to spend holidays with our entire extended families. Family can mean a million different things to a million different people. However, under intestate succession laws, the government determines who is considered family. The government has had to restrict the size of our family gatherings because of this pandemic. Don’t let the government also restrict who in your family will inherit from your estate. Make a Last Will and Testament to best reflect your unique family.

The contents of this article are not intended as legal advice and are for information purposes only. Should you require legal advice on a specific issue relating to the contents of this article, please seek the services of a legal professional.

Atty Alona C. Mercado is a partner with the law firm of MERCADO TRINH LAW LLP. She was called to the Manitoba Bar in 1999. Her preferred areas of practice include wills and estates, real estate, business law and immigration law. Alona can be reached at (204) 594-3436 or Website:

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