7 Tips from a Family Law Expert: Connie Aquino on Legal Separation and Women’s Rights | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Family Lawyer Expert Connie Aquino of Calleja Law specializing in legal separation

Atty. Connie Aquino knows what she brings to the table. An expert in legal separation, annulment and custody, she guides us through women’s rights under the laws of Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC), prenuptial agreements, adoption, guardianship and estate planning. Since passing the bar in 2005, she has excelled under the mentorship of Atty. Howard Calleja. Her early nullity and custody cases were of friends and relatives. These felt personal, and it was only a matter of time before she transformed her sympathy into the ambition to give her clients what they deserved. 

She tells us handling these cases entails “Not just a working knowledge of the law, but adeptness at understanding how human relations work. There is no templated way of handling these cases.”

As she goes through separation proceedings, she encourages women to have a good perspective. “Women should remind themselves that this process will not last forever. Separation proceedings will always be hard and it is not a win-or-lose battle.” A veteran expert in family law, Atty. Connie shares with us how women (and also men) can be empowered under the eyes of the law, with attention and respect to their humanity.

1. Know your basic rights

Atty. Connie encourages women not to be afraid, “Especially if they are in abusive relationships — they can get out of it and start over. Even if they are financially dependent on their partners, they can ask the courts to oblige their spouses to provide them with the financial support they need. Marital infidelity is also now considered psychological abuse and is punishable under RA 9262 or Violence Against Women and Children Act. Note laws under RA 9262 protect women even in illicit relationships.

The basic rights of women in the family context include the right to spousal support, right to exercise parental authority over children (if any), right to retain their maiden name, right to exercise their chosen profession, right to own property, and right to participate and be heard in discussions between spouses involving family life.

Apart from professional guidance from their lawyers, women should seek help and emotional support from family and friends. I also refer them to psychiatrists if needed to help them cope with such an emotional process.”

2. Prepare for legal separation costs and processes

While Connie herself does pro-bono work as her duty to give back, she also accepts payments as a lawyer through installments or terms. In consideration of costs, she says her number one tip is to, “Get an efficient lawyer, because the shorter the case will be, the cheaper it will be for you.

Since annulments and legal separations and cases of this kind are litigious and long-drawn, I would suggest clients discuss the estimated costs with their lawyers.

Legal separation has what they call a “cooling down period” wherein the parties are required to wait for 6 months from the filing of the petition before the case should proceed.”

3. For women dealing with VAWC

“If there are abuses, I usually recommend filing a case of VAWC – Violence Against Women and Children because underneath that law is a series of other offenses like sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse and physical abuse. So we have criminal laws should there be any other commission of crimes like rape, frustrated parricide, an attempt on the women’s life.”

For difficult spouses who refuse to honor post-separation terms, she says, “A woman can still file other cases against the spouse not limited to invocation of support for their common children or VAWC cases if there are abuses committed.”

For women who have experienced physical violence, drug addiction or something more grievous such as an attempt against the woman’s life, she recommends seeing psychiatrists and or doctors to professionally help recovery. 

4. Navigating custody

Custody is perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of legal separation. Regardless of age or family setup, the child needs to be listened to in a safe space, from how they want visitation rights of the non-custodial parent to rising above this highly emotional time. Atty. Connie asserts, “The paramount welfare of the children must be considered. They have to be involved with this,”

She informs us that “Below the age of seven, women are automatically given custody. Unless there is a compelling reason for them to lose custody of the child like physical abuse or trafficking. Custody can be threshed out early on, before going into the nullity proper. I would advise my clients to talk to their children beforehand so their best interests are considered. The knowledge that comes out of this would guide the woman in deciding her way forward —  in a way that is both healthy for her and her children.”

5. Break the prenup taboo 

“Before it was very taboo to discuss prenups because you’re discussing money when you haven’t gotten married. But now a lot of younger couples are opting to do that because it saves them problems later on. There’s nothing wrong with it, you’re just saying how your finances are going to go when you’re married.

For example, when they split up, it’s already fixed. The assets you brought in before the marriage are not touched. I’ve always explained to my clients that prenups don’t mean you don’t trust the person – Of course not! It’s also to save the community property. If your spouse commits a crime or is sued, your liability will not be joint. Under the law, spouses are jointly liable, except in the absence of a prenup. 

Sometimes there are rich children given properties or loads of cash even before they get an inheritance. It also applies to plain Janes. What if your spouse accumulates debt? Without a prenup, you’re going to pay for those debts. But with a prenup, you’re excused. 

Your prenup must be registered. Not just notarized. You provide your prenuptial agreement when you file your marriage license. You should also have affidavits in all the registers of deeds where you have properties.”

6. A few words on adoption and estate cases

Besides legal separation and annulment, Atty. Connie has handled adoption cases both domestically and inter-country. She notes there is special attention given to the peculiar circumstances, and reminds us of the reality of human emotions—like how some carry hope as a single mother gives an orphan a home, while others are trickier, like adoption as a means to remove a child from a neglectful relationship.

During our conversation, Atty. Connie reminds us in so many words that “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” She recommends older women and men prepare disposal of their assets through preparation of last will and testament, as well as transfers of properties–while minimizing taxes. 

“When you die you’re automatically taxed for your certain estate. If you don’t plan it properly, you can inherit a lot of properties but if you don’t have the cash, the penalties and surcharges will just go up and you will be stuck with those properties.” She also informs us about other options such as life insurance.

When asked about the ripe time to prepare your estate, she says, “We cannot tell with death. I’ve had younger people asking me to draft wills for them right now. Just to ensure that everything is properly taken care of should they pass.”

7. Maintaining your independence and the keys to a good marriage

Atty. Connie shares with us how she keeps herself brimming with vitality to pursue her causes – between a practice of twice-a-week pilates, three-times-a-week strength training, running, boxing, and a long-distance bike route from Alabang to Tagaytay and back every weekend, it is no wonder she maintains her physical self-care (a tip she recommends to all her female clients, too) keeping the blood flowing, brain pumping, so she can take care of herself and empower women in return.

“I highly recommend self-care,” she says, “Because if you take care of your physical, emotional and spiritual aspects, you can function properly. You can be a better mother, a better wife. A better worker. At this age, I don’t want to stereotype women that they are just supposed to be at home. We’re past that. We are in the 2020s now.”

Having witnessed many nullity and legal separation cases and a wife herself, she has a few solid words of advice on how to nurture a good marriage: “Have your own separate lives. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you have to follow everything your spouse does. You lose your individuality and it becomes boring, a routine. When you have separate lives you bring in something fresh. Go on all-girls travel. Do things with your friends. Don’t just follow the shadow of your husband. Or if you’re in a career, don’t give it up. It’s all about balance.

And of course to have a successful marriage, get married when you’re sure – when you’ve fully gotten to know your partner, and you see that he’s someone you can live with as a companion, a friend, a lover, everything! Not just a financier.

Family Lawyer Expert Connie Aquino of Calleja Law specializing in legal separation

Throughout Atty. Connie reminds us that it is not an Us. vs. Them situation, and that while most of her clients are women, “In our law firm, we also have male clients, so we don’t discriminate against the other sex. It just so happens that there are a lot more women now who are more aware of their rights. If they are in abusive marriages, they get out,” showing the rise of awareness and action for women’s rights.

There are a few more things we ask Atty. Connie. We reflect on church law, which she reminds us is not handled by civil lawyers, but canonical lawyers, priests who specialize in marriage annulment in the Vatican.

On the topic of divorce, she tells us it is about time it should be legalized, but also that she is “Not for it totally. I’m still for the sanctity of marriage, given the right safeguards,” she says, “It just shouldn’t be used to conveniently get out of any marriage.” 

Family Lawyer Expert Connie Aquino of Calleja Law specializing in legal separation

Sporting a Dior laser-cut belt, Atty. Connie gives us one last bonus tip on how a woman can show up for herself in proceedings, “I tell my clients, look pretty! Have a change of hairstyle. Look fit, look nice. Don’t tell me pag iniwan ka, you’re going to look sad, bugbog. No, go out! Looking good is a form of self-empowerment. When you’re fit and you feel good, you look good, you can tackle anything. It can be very superficial but it helps.”

Just last year, Atty. Connie cycled long-distance in the Pyrenees mountains from Spain to France. She finished the last leg of the tour de France, called Col du Tourmalet, one of the highest-paved and most dangerous mountain passes. After years of a career in law helping women claim their strength, Atty. Connie Aquino has shown us how a woman can show up for herself and go beyond society’s expectations–all the while shining boldly and looking good, too.

Photography by JT Fernandez

Creative Direction by Sophia Ysabel Concordia 

Produced by Angela Manuel Go 

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