The Blind Side: Former South Carolina Gamecock Coach’s Children Claim Undue Influence in Probate

SEC football is known for its national championships, sensational athletes, and jaw-dropping hits. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the children of Jim Carlen, former coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, are fighting back after being blindsided by the probate of a will that left them nothing. In a petition filed in probate court, his three children have alleged that Carlen’s second wife, Meredith, exercised undue influence over Carlen in the final years of his life and, as a result, his will is invalid.

Jim Carlen’s coaching career began in 1966 with the West Virginia Mountaineers. After nine years of success at both West Virginia and Texas Tech, Carlen was hired as both the head football coach and athletic director at South Carolina. He took the Gamecocks to three bowls in just seven years, which was a large step up for a program that had only been to two bowls in its history. Carlen still ranks third in South Carolina coaching wins behind only Steve Spurrier and Rex Enright.

After fighting severe dementia and Alzheimer’s, the coach passed away in July of 2012. Subsequently, probate proceedings began to distribute his estate, valued somewhere between 6.3 and 10 million dollars. Needless to say, the probate of Carlen’s will has not gone as smoothly as his coaching career. After the identifiable assets were distributed to Meredith in March, pursuant to a will executed by Carlen in 2010, his children filed the aforementioned petition in probate court. In August, the probate court transferred the case to the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas. Currently, the parties are in discovery and awaiting trial.

Although this case will be adjudicated under the laws of South Carolina, it is worth examining undue influence in Florida and how Florida law would apply to these unfortunate circumstances. In Florida, a presumption of undue influence arises at the outset of a claim when a substantial beneficiary of a will occupies a confidential relationship with the testator and is active in procuring the contested will. However, an exception from the presumption of undue influence exists when the alleged undue influencer is the spouse of the testator, because between spouses, the requirements for a presumption of undue influence would be met in almost every case.

This exception would pose a huge initial hurdle for Jim Carlen’s children to overcome. Because Meredith and Jim had been married for nearly 30 years at the time of his death, the presumption of undue influence would not exist in the hypothetical probate of his will in Florida. Without this presumption, a heavy burden is placed on the party asserting undue influence to show that the influence was “to such a degree that there is a destruction of free agency and willpower.

It appears that Carlen’s children will be standing on three pieces of evidence to support their claim. First, the fact that when he drafted his will in 2010, Carlen was suffering from severed dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Second, in a prior will drafted in 2007, Carlen had devised parts of his estate to both Meredith and each of his children. Finally, his children allege that as his medical conditions worsened, he was driven across the state of South Carolina to a law office where he was presented with a will, which he then signed.

Because of the lack of the presumption of undue influence, it is questionable whether Carlen’s children would prevail under Florida law. Even if the children could show that Meredith planted the seed for the drafting of the 2010 will, that would not be enough for the children to carry the day. In order for the will to be held invalid, they would need to show that Meredith exercised sufficient influence over Carlen’s mind so as to deprive him of his own free will.

Because it is still early in the case, it is unclear what evidence Meredith will bring to the table in support of her defense. If she were able to put on witnesses who corroborate a finding that Carlen understood what he was doing when the 2010 will came into existence, a Florida Court would likely find in her favor. It will be interesting to see in the coming months what comes of this case in South Carolina, which underscores the family turmoil that can result from a claim of undue influence, and the importance of consulting with a legal professional when drafting a will, challenging a will, or defending against a challenge to a will.

If you or someone you know wishes to draft a will with protections in place to prevent it from being vulnerable to a future claim of undue influence, or if you believe that a will was tainted by undue influence and wish to challenge it on those or other grounds, you should consult with attorneys who are experienced in estate planning and probate litigation, such as the experienced attorneys at Chepenik Trushin LLP. Please do not hesitate to contact us for an initial consultation.