“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” begins when Holmes and his companion, Watson, are visited by a Mr. MacFarlane, a “wild-eyed and frantic” young man who has been pursued by the police and charged with the murder of Mr. Oldacre, an eccentric and reclusive bachelor. Mr. MacFarlane swears upon his innocence, but his situation is forlorn, as Mr. Oldacre, on the day he was allegedly murdered, prepared a holograph Will in which he gave everything to Mr. MacFarlane.
Upon inspection of the holograph Will, Holmes deduces that it was written on a train, since there are some sentences that are clear and discernible, and others which are illegible – “the good writing represents stations, the bad writing movement”. According to Holmes, this corroborates Mr. MacFarlane’s credibility:
“It is curious – is it not? – that a man should draw up so important a document in so haphazard a fashion. It suggests that he did not think it was going to be of much practical importance.”
Holmes becomes more suspicious of the official narrative when he discovers, amongst other things, that prior to his death, Mr. Oldacre transferred his assets to a mysterious unknown, Mr. Cornelius.
In estate litigation in Ontario, it is common practice for litigants to employ handwriting experts to investigate the authenticity of documents and signatures, but they, likely cautious and mindful of their professional reputations, may be less inclined to make such momentous and bold inferences. In cracking the case (spoiler alert!), Holmes certainly employs measures that go far beyond those available to present-day estate litigators, experts, investigators, and the authorities.
Working with some suggestive facts – such as that Mr. Oldacre executed his Will sloppily and that he transferred his wealth to one party while designating another party as his estate beneficiary – Sherlock Holmes deduces that Mr. Oldacre has faked his own death, framed Mr. MacFarlane, and transferred his wealth to the fictitious Mr. Cornelius, who is in fact himself, in order to defraud his creditors. In an effort to vindicate his theory and save Mr. MacFarlane, Holmes invites the police into Mr. Oldacre’s home, instructs Watson to put a match to some straw, and then, when there is a blaze and smoke billowing within the house, Holmes has the police yell “fire”:
“A door suddenly flew open out of what appeared to be solid wall at the end of the corridor, and a little, wizened man darted out of it, like a rabbit out of its burrow. ‘Capital!’ said Holmes, calmly. ‘Watson, a bucket of water over the straw … allow me to present you with your principal missing witness, Mr. Jonas Oldacre.’”
These types of truth-finding artifices, though extreme and unorthodox, are within the purview of the unofficial detective. Estate litigators, on the other hand, operate under the stricter ambit of the Law Society of Ontario, which would likely frown upon such irregular practices.
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Suzana Popovic-Montag & Devin McMurtry
Our firm has acted in some of Canada’s largest and most complex inheritance cases, and because of this recognition we get occasional inquiries about “Inheritance Scams”. It should be noted that legitimate inheritance locating efforts can be required for “missing heir cases”, but on legitimate estates you would not be asked for money or your banking information. “Inheritance Scams” do exactly that, with the lie that they will deliver a large sum of money to you, if you pay some of the fictional expenses in advance. The most interesting statistics that I found on this scam were on an Australian government website appropriately named “Scamwatch”. In 2018 in Australia there were 2,828 reports of “Inheritance Scams” of which 3.0% resulted in actual financial losses of $2,172,157 where the majority of losses were suffered by those who were over 65 years of age. For more information on how to protect yourself from scams:
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The Fraudulent Conveyances Act, RSO 1990, c F.29 (the “FCA”) is designed to prevent a debtor from hiding assets from creditors by fraudulently transferring the assets to a third party. If the FCA applies, the Court shall make the property that was fraudulently conveyed available for creditors of the transferor.
Based on the general description and purpose of the FCA, it would appear as though it is a means of redress for frustrated creditors, only. However, that is not the case.
In accordance with section 2 of the FCA, the Court is authorized to set aside transactions that are entered into with the intent to defeat an action (amongst other things), for the benefit of “creditors and others”. The specific wording of this section of the FCA is as follows:
“Every conveyance of real property or personal property and every bond, suit, judgment and execution heretofore or hereafter made with intent to defeat, hinder, delay or defraud creditors or others of their just and lawful action, suits, debts, accounts, damages, penalties or forfeitures are void as against such persons and their assigns.”
Although the FCA does not define what is meant by “others”, it is clear that the statute specifically delineates “others” to signify that it is a group of entities that could otherwise not be defined as “creditors”.
The Ontario Court of Appeal in Hopkinson v Westerman (1919) 45 OLR 208, 48 DLR 597 (ONCA) defined “others” as those persons who, though not judgment creditors, had pending actions in which they were sure to recover damages.
Since then, the definition of “others” has been used in many cases, including in the family law context, such that, a spouse could qualify as a person who is intended to be protected from conveyances of property made with the intent to defeat his or her interest.
The court in Robins v Robins Estate  OTC 285, 121 ACWS (3d) 1104 (ONSC) held that a spouse who brought a claim against her husband’s Estate could not make a claim under the FCA.
The Court held that if the spouse was found to be a “creditor” it would have to be based on the Deceased’s obligation to support her as a spouse. The Court held that “[B]oth spouses have an obligation to support themselves and each other” and if the theory of the surviving spouse was accepted, spouses in a marriage would be in a “constant creditor-debtor relationship throughout cohabitation and marriage unable to alienate any property, the result of which may leave them unable to pay support at a later time.”
In deciding that the spouse in this matter was not a “creditor” the Court gave particular weight to the fact that the relationship was relatively short-term and that the spouse was able to support herself. In addition to that, the conveyance in question took place before the date of marriage, which reasonably made the surviving spouse’s argument that it was made with a fraudulent intent of defeating her support claim, all the more difficult.
In contrast, the Ontario Court of Appeal in Stone v Stone, 55 OR (3d) 491,  OTC 412 (ONCA), in interpreting the same obligation of spouses to support themselves and each other, found, in the context of an election under section 6 of the Family Law Act, following the Deceased’s death, that the FCA did apply. Particular weight was placed on the fact that the Deceased did know that his wife would survive him and was aware that the value of her assets was less than the value of his and that she would not accept her legacy under the Will.
The Court in Robins v Robins Estate found that the Stone v Stone decision was different because it addressed the claim of equalization of property rather than the issue of support under the Family Law Act. The Court further held that unlike the conveyance of property accumulated during a 24 year marriage in Stone v Stone, the case of Robins v Robins Estate addressed an asset owned by the Deceased before the cohabitation date and the marriage.
Of interest is the fact that the courts do not seem to significantly distinguish between the category of “creditors” and the category of “others”. Perhaps, if more of a difference is seen between the two, concerns regarding creating an overarching creditor-debtor relationship between spouses would not seem as significant.
The question remains whether the FCA category of “others” could extend to a spouse in the context of a claim as against an Estate? That remains to be seen, however, based on the assessment made by the courts in the two cases discussed, it very well could – it just depends on the factual circumstances.
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Pursuant to section 4 of the Limitations Act, generally, a claim should be started by an individual within two years of the claim being discovered. Section 5 of the Limitations Act, defines discovery as “the day on which a reasonable person with the abilities and in the circumstance of the person with the claim first ought to have known of the matters referred to.”
These provisions raise an interesting estates question: What if an individual was unaware that they were named as a beneficiary of an estate? Would the Limitations Act apply in these circumstances, even though the beneficiary was unaware of their claim?
The doctrine of fraudulent concealment may operate to provide for an equitable tolling of the limitation period. Simply put, this means that discoverability is a factor in considering fraudulent concealment for estates purposes. The doctrine will suspend the running of the limitation clock until the reasonable party can reasonably discover the cause of action.
As stated in Roulsten v McKenny et al, 2016 ONSC 2377 para 41, and as established in Giroux Estate v Trillium Health Centre, 2005 CanLII 1488 (ON CA), “the purpose underlying the doctrine of fraudulent concealment is to prevent defendants who stand in a special relationship with a party from using a limitation provision as an instrument of fraud”. A special relationship can be defined as one in which the plaintiff may rely on the defendant’s word and defendant ought to reasonably foresee that the plaintiff would rely on his representation.
As defined in the case of KM v HM,  3 SCR 6, at para 65, “‘Fraud’, for the purposes of fraudulent concealment, is defined as “conduct which having regard to some special relationship between the two parties concerned, is an unconscionable thing for one to do towards the other.”
As established through the existing jurisprudence, in order to make out the doctrine of fraudulent concealment, there are three necessary elements:
- the defendant and the plaintiff are engaged in a special relationship with one another;
- the defendant’s conduct is unconscionable; and
- the defendant conceals the plaintiff’s right of action
As stated above, if an individual was unaware that they were the beneficiary of an estate, and a named estate trustee actively concealed the fact, it is possible that the remedy of fraudulent concealment provision would apply. It appears the provision will not apply if you knew or ought to have known that you were a beneficiary of an estate.
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Litigation lawyers live in fear and sober respect of the limitation period. We all know that missing a statutory limitation period can be the kiss of death. Given the right circumstances, however, there is one light in the dark that can overcome the shadow of both statutory limitations and common law laches arguments.
Fraudulent concealment is a common law doctrine that operates in equity to defeat limitations defences where:
1) The defendant and plaintiff are engaged in a special relationship with one another;
2) Given the special or confidential nature of their relationship, the defendant’s conduct amounts to an unconscionable thing for the one to do towards the other; and
3) The defendant conceals the plaintiff’s right of action, either actively, or as a result of the manner in which the act that gave rise to the right of action is performed.
Fraudulent concealment is not a rule of construction like the discoverability rule. It is an equitable principle that prevents a limitation period from operating “as an instrument of injustice”. It is aimed at preventing unscrupulous defendants who stand in a special relationship with the injured party from using a limitation provision as an instrument of fraud. See Giroux Estate v. Trillium Health Centre, 2005 CanLII 1488 (ON C.A.)
The fraudulent concealment necessary to postpone a limitation period need not amount to deceit or common law fraud. It is sufficient if the conduct, having regard to some special relationship between the parties, is an unconscionable thing for the one to do towards the other. See Guerin v. The Queen,  2 S.C.R. 335
For more information on limitation periods and an excellent in-depth analysis of the effect of the Limitations Act, 2002, see Anne Werker, “ Limitation Periods in Ontario and Claims by Beneficiaries” (2008) 34:1 The Advocates Quarterly, 1.
Perhaps now would be a good time to take a minute to check on a few limitation periods – just in case!
Sharon Davis – Click here for more information on Sharon Davis.