It’s the problem everyone wishes they had. Who to turn to after a $1.6B lottery win? The record-breaking Mega Millions jackpot, which has birthed a new hashtag, #IfIWonABillionDollars, hasn’t seen a winner since July 25, and the odds of winning stand at about one in 303 million.
But here’s some legal advice for the winner. You know, just in case.
Lottery lawyer Jason M. Kurland of Pivkin Radler, New York, tells his clients to sign their ticket before they do anything else. That’s because it’s a bearer instrument, which, according to Kurland, means that “whoever hands it in to the Lottery Commission with their name on the back of it is the winner.”
If a client loses an unsigned ticket, they also lose the prize.
Bias aside, Kurland stressed the importance of lawyering up, because going it alone is often “too overwhelming” for a lottery winner.
“You’re in a world that you’re not accustomed to being in,” Kurland said. “So if you have an advocate who’s been there before, someone who you know has your back, it’s really invaluable.”
States like Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohia, South Carolina and Texas allow winners to keep their identities secret, but most don’t. Because under most Right-to-Know laws, that information falls under the public records umbrella. It also doesn’t aid public trust in the process if all the winners are anonymous.
If you’re in the majority, “be prepared to be contacted by media — and long lost relatives,” said Miami bankruptcy lawyer Monique D. Hayes, who advised the winner to secure their home and family however they can before going public.
Some states have allowed winners to have an independent trustee, usually an attorney, sign the lottery ticket to send the money to a trust account.
In March, New Hampshire Judge Charles S. Temple ruled that the winner of a $560 million Powerball jackpot could remain a Jane Doe after she’d signed the ticket, but did allow Merrimack, the name of her town, to become public.
That said, Kurland “would not blame” the winner for signing the ticket and “just dealing with” the resulting publicity. “It’s very scary to let someone else sign the back of a $1.6B ticket,” Kurland said.
In March, Andrew D. Santana, managing partner of Fox Rothschild, Pennsylvannia, signed a winning lottery ticket on behalf of an anonymous client, who sent the funds to an entity called Emerald Legacy Trust.
Their $273.9 million cash prize became $199.8 million after taxes.
According to Santana, he had to “threaten” litigation with the Department of Revenue to maintain confidentiality.
“I had a lot of phone calls from a lot of different people who were trying to get them. They’d offer me investment opportunities,” Santana said. “There were charitable people and other strange phone calls from people who claimed the ticket was stolen from them.”
Santana worked with financial advisory firms and multi-family offices to help his client manage the money without revealing their identity.
California trust and estates attorney Richard M. Aaron of Dowling Aaron Incorporated pointed out that many states that prohibit anonymity, including his, don’t force winners to have pictures taken.
In Aaron’s mind, appearing on TV is “a serious error in judgment” as it makes winners and their family “targets to everything from charities, both phony and legitimate, friends, distant relatives, neighbors, complete strangers, financial scammers and maybe worse.”
What could go wrong?
In November 2015, Craigory Burch Jr. landed more than $400,00 in the Georgia lotto, before being murdered by seven masked man who broke into his home, demanding money. According to police, Burch was a “pre-selected” target, and had posed for a photo with a gigantic check two months earlier.
‘With sudden wealth comes sudden responsibilities’
“What people generally don’t realize is that with sudden wealth comes sudden responsibilities and problems,” Aaron said.
Having dealt with many clients who have “suddenly become wealthy,” including lottery winners, professional athletes and business owners selling shop, Aaron said he’s witnessed clients struggle to grasp “what wealth really means.”
“When an ordinary person wins a lot of money, they feel a rush of emotions. They are giddy,” Aaron said. “Then they can go from feeling fortunate to feeling guilty, and from being happy to feeling targeted. All of these emotions can leave a lottery winner feeling distressed.”
The best way to mitigate the chaos, according to Aaron, is to set up boundaries and procedures — both personal and financial.
“Even a big number is finite,” Aaron said.
According to Kurland, many of his clients “tend to act too quickly,” and begin incessantly handing out gifts without regard to the tax consequences or lifetime exemptions.
“Winners understand that this was complete luck, that this could have been anybody and the odds of them winning are so ridiculous that they can’t believe it was them. They want to do the right thing by their friends and family, but what friends and family don’t realize is that they’re just one friend and one family member. There may be 50 others,” Kurland said.
$1.6B is Mega Millions’ annuity option, a fixed sum of money paid at regular interludes, while the lump-sum payout is about $904 million.
After state, federal, corporate and gift taxes have sunk their teeth into the jackpot, the final figure can be significantly less. Depending on where a winner lives, $1.6B might become $600M, according to USA Mega.
“By giving it away so quickly, you don’t give it a chance to grow,” Kurland said. “If you just take a step back, take a deep breath, sit on it for a couple of months, even a year, you’ll realize that instead of giving it away you’ll now have made so much more on your money and now you can give even more away.”