Court battle heats up over late USC football coach Carlen’s $10 million estate

jmonk@thestate.comAugust 31, 2013 

Former University of South Carolina quarterback Todd Ellis, a Columbia-area lawyer, has joined the legal defense team representing the $10 million-plus estate of the late USC football coach Jim Carlen.

Distribution of much of the estate, which took place earlier this year in Richland County probate court, is being challenged by Carlen’s three adult children from his first marriage.

The looming estate battle is likely to be closely watched.

Not only is a large sum of money at stake, but there are issues of possible eldercare abuse and inheritance rights, as well as USC football, always an attention-grabber.

Ellis, who played under the late Coach Joe Morrison in the 1980s and was USC’s all-time-winningest quarterback, will represent Holt Carlen, one of two defendants in the court dispute. Ellis also broadcasts play-by-by action on FM radio for Gamecock football games each fall.

Holt Carlen, 25, is the son of Coach Carlen and his second wife, Meredith Carlen, the other defendant in the lawsuit.

“We have no comment at this time,” Ellis said last week, speaking of himself and Holt Carlen. Meredith Carlen also has declined comment.

Carlen, who died last year in a Hilton Head-area care facility at 79, was one of USC’s most high-profile football coaches. Coaching from 1975-81, he compiled a 45-36-1 record and recruited running back George Rogers, USC’s only Heisman Trophy winner. After leaving USC in 1981, Carlen never coached again, but went on to amass a small fortune through various business endeavors.

Last week, the case was transferred by probate court to the S.C. Court of Common Pleas in Richland County, where the plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial.

Eric Bland, the Columbia attorney representing the three adult children plaintiffs, said his clients will begin discovery immediately. Discovery is a sometimes lengthy pre-trial process whereby lawyers gather information by subpoena and other means to help prepare their case.

“We have issued subpoenas to various professionals, including physicians and financial advisers who may have records relevant to this case and to the allegations raised,” Bland said.

Bland represents Mollianne Carlen Elliott, James A. Carlen IV and Melanie Carlen Caswell, who among them have 12 children. Carlen’s will also cut those 12 grandchildren out of any inheritance, including football memorabilia, according to a petition filed in the case.

The petition said that in the last years of his life, Carlen suffered from severe dementia and Alzheimer’s and that second wife Meredith “unduly influenced” him to write a new will. Carlen married her in 1983 after divorcing his first wife, Sharon.

The petition said that in 2008, Carlen began to show signs of dementia and in 2009, was formally diagnosed with dementia. He wrote his last will – the one being contested – in 2010, the petition said.

Holt Carlen faces other legal challenges. In 2012, while driving impaired, he hit and killed a pedestrian in Five Points while operating a car owned by his father, who at the time of the crash was still alive, according to warrants and legal records.

Legal papers in that case said Holt Carlen has a history of DUI arrests. Last winter, Coach Carlen’s estate and insurance companies paid $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by relatives of Justin Timmerman, the pedestrian killed in the crash.

Holt Carlen’s felony-DUI case has not yet gone to trial. Ellis and Columbia attorney Joe McCulloch are representing Holt Carlen in that case.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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