You Won the Lottery? Here’s What to Do Next
Experts weigh in on how to avoid the all-too-common riches-to-rags saga
Rhoda and Alex Toth had less than $25 to their name when they won $13 million in the Florida lottery. When they hit the jackpot, everything looked golden. But then things fell apart.The Toths blew through the money in less than a decade, filed for bankruptcy and were indicted for tax fraud with a $2.5 million IRS tab. Alex died before the trial, but in 2008, Rhoda went to prison for tax evasion.
Unfortunately, such tales are not unique — and the more people win, the more likely it is they will squander their money. A 2009 study of 35,000 people who won $600 or more in Florida’s Fantasy Five lottery found that those who won between $50,000 and $150,000 were 50 percent more likely to file bankruptcy within 3 to 5 years of their winning compared to people who won $10,000 or less.
Big money paydays often lead to financial ruin through reckless spending, undisciplined giving and poor decisions. The problem is that many lottery winners have little experience handling money, especially overnight wealth they’ve only dreamed about, experts say.
“When people who don’t have money get money, they don’t know how to deal with it ,” said Stanley Pollock, a certified public accountant (CPA) in Oakland, California who has worked with a number of clients confronted with sudden wealth.
“Often they spend too much, and family and friends come out of the woodwork,” says Pollock. “They share and buy things they shouldn’t buy.”
So what should you do when you hit the jackpot? Here is some basic advice from financial experts.
If possible, keep it quiet. Avoid publicity. Some states allow lottery winners to remain anonymous. You'll likely hear from friends, family, hard luck cases and more. You may find it difficult to say “no,” but as with spending, you need to be disciplined about your giving, Pollock says.
See a financial advisor first, not your
need to think about things that may never have before been relevant to your
financial life, from ways to protect your assets to new tax strategies.
The best thing for people to do when they get a lot of money , says Pollock, is to get "a good, objective advisor" who can help them plan for the future. This way, he says, “they don’t over-spend and over-give. They can enjoy the money for a long time.” One place to start is to find a certified financial planner who can provide more than investment advice and address issues from estate planning to budgeting. The Financial Planning Association can help you find one.
Pay your taxes and debts. Before you start spending, get your financial house in order. Pay your taxes and eliminate debt. Even if things go bad, you will be in much better financial health.
“We find that winning the lottery, if anything, delays people filing for bankruptcy, but it doesn’t turn out to be a great life event for people,” said Paige Marta Skiba, PhD, a behavioral economist and law professor at Vanderbilt University who co-authored the 2009 study about Florida’s Fantasy Five. “Even though the large lottery winners that we studied could have paid off all of their secured and unsecured debt, they had just as much debt five years after winning. Whatever they are doing with their winnings, they are not paying down their debt.”
Related: 7 Tips for Filing Your Taxes Safely
Don’t live like a lottery winner. Spending is easy, but understand the true cost of your decisions. Sure, you can afford that yacht, but what will it cost to maintain and dock it? Set a budget and live by it. With your values in mind, experts say, budget some of your money for charity.
Protect the principle, live off the interest. Don’t eat through your winnings. Invest the money and spend only the interest and capital gains earned.
If you’re itching to spend a little, try this. Take a small portion of your money and do something fun to get the urge to spend out of your system. But then see if you can live off the interest, says Ed Gjertsen, a certified financial planner in Northfield, Illinois and president of the Financial Planning Association. “If you can live off that interest, then that money that you just won can change the future of generations to come,” he said. “Try to let it enhance your lifestyle rather than be your lifestyle. That’s a good way to look at it.”
Lump sum or annuity? You're better off taking the lump sum if you intend to invest most of it and can expect a reasonable return, according to Business Insider. But if you feel you might be tempted to fritter away your fortune, an annuity (payments spread out over years) is the better option.