EXCLUSIVE: Ex-USC football coach’s children sue his $10M estate

jmonk@thestate.comAugust 1, 2013 

Three adult children of the late former University of South Carolina football coach Jim Carlen have filed a petition in probate court, alleging the coach’s second wife orchestrated a revised will that unlawfully disinherited them from the coach’s $10 million-plus estate.

In the last years of his life, Carlen suffered from severe dementia and Alzheimer’s, and that is when his second wife, Meredith Carlen, “unduly influenced” him to write a new will, cutting them off from inheriting any money at all as well as any sports memorabilia, the siblings’ petition says.

“The former Gamecock ball coach was exploited and unduly influenced in his weakened state and his true final wishes were erased through a purposed Last Will … at a time when he could not have understood and appreciated what the document represented,” said the petition filed in Richland County probate court.

Meredith Carlen said Wednesday of the petition, “It sickens me – I have nothing to say.”

Her estate lawyer, Steve Johnson of Columbia, could not be reached. Johnson’s Internet site has a Question and Answer page that says, “Must a person be mentally competent to write a valid will in South Carolina? Yes.”

Mollianne Carlen Elliott, James A. Carlen IV and Melanie Carlen Caswell filed the petition. Between them they have 12 children of their own, and those children were also cut off from receiving any inheritance, the petition alleges.

“There is no father who loves his children and grandchildren who would have done something like this,” said Eric Bland, the Columbia attorney who filed the petition for the three.

“We consider Coach Carlen to have been a vulnerable adult,” Bland said.

Carlen, USC’s head football coach from 1975-81, died in July 2012 in a Hilton Head area care facility at the age of 79.

One of USC’s winningest football coaches ever, he recruited Heisman Trophy running back George Rogers and compiled a 45-36-1 record. USC was his last coaching job.

After football, Carlen pursued business interests in the fields of real estate, banking, franchise operation and investing and “amassed assets worth in excess of $10 million,” the children’s petition says.

According to the filing, Carlen executed a will in 1970 that provided for his first wife, Sharon, and their three children.

In 1983, Carlen married Meredith Carlen after he and Sharon divorced. Carlen and Meredith had one son, William Holt Carlen.

After that, up until 2007, Carlen updated his estate and wrote new wills, each of which “reflected his deep love for all his children and was designed expressly to provide for them through cash and in-kind distributions of personal property,” the petition said. By “all his children,” Carlen meant the three by his first marriage as well as the son he had with Meredith Carlen, Bland said.

In 2008, the petition said, Carlen began to show signs of dementia and then in 2009, he was diagnosed with dementia. “His condition had a negative effect on his cognition, language, reading, writing and memory,” the petition said.

After 2009, Carlen gave up driving because “it was no longer safe for him to do so,” the petition said.

From here on, the petition said, Meredith Carlen gained “more and more” control over Carlen, his medical care and his finances. She also began suggesting to the children from his first marriage that the former coach “was worried about his finances and/or had lost his wealth.”

In late 2010, as Carlen’s medical condition worsened, he “was driven from Columbia to the law office of an attorney in Hilton Head Island,” the petition said.

“While in Hilton Head, Coach Carlen was apparently presented with a document entitled Last Will and Testament … which he purportedly signed,” the petition says.

“Unlike the 2007 will which provided for both Coach Carlen’s children and his wife, Meredith, the 2010 will left all of his property to his wife Meredith and left nothing whatsoever to his children or grandchildren: not money; not personal property; not a photograph; (nor) memorabilia from any point in Coach Carlen’s career or a token for them to remember him by,” the petition says.

In July 2011, Carlen “was made to execute a new power of attorney in favor of Meredith, empowering her to assume full control over all aspects” of his financial affairs, the petition said.

After she assumed control over Carlen’s finances, she stopped making annual tax-free gifts to the three children – gifts that Carlen customarily made, the petition said.

“Meredith led the Carlen children to believe that she may have lacked the financial resources to provide for Coach Carlen’s basic needs. Clearly this was not the case,” the petition said.

When Carlen died last July, his three adult children didn’t know anything about the 2010 will that cut them off, the petition said.

And they only discovered that their father had substantial assets and that they had been disinherited several months ago when they visited Richland County Probate Court. There, they learned that “his sizable probate estate with an estimated value in excess of $6.3 million” had been left entirely to Meredith, the petition said.

Those assets included, according to an inventory in the probate court record:

•  Gold coins valued at $538,000.

•  About 25,000 shares of Coca Cola stock, worth $1.9 million.

•  A half interest, worth $88,750, in a time-share at Litchfield by the Sea at Pawleys Island.

•  A half interest, worth $216,681, in a Hilton Head Island property.

•  A half interest, worth $3.1 million, in The Paddocks, an umbrella company that oversaw some of Carlen’s business operations.

Although the coach’s listed assets in the probate court totaled some $6.3 million, Meredith Carlen had “many millions of dollars” worth of assets transferred to her during the coach’s lifetime, the petition asserts. The petition valued the estate at $10 million.

The petition asks the probate court to declare the 2010 will invalid because it is a “byproduct of the undue influence exercised over him and/or of his diminished mental capacity.” The 2010 will should be replaced with the 2007 will, it said.

Although the $6.3 million in identifiable assets was distributed to Meredith Carlen in March, Bland said there are legal ways for the already-distributed assets to be traced and then be placed under a court’s jurisdiction for another determination.

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