Money Talks, So Should You

Crisis Button: I just won the lottery! What do I do?

George Chidi
by George Chidi, Dimespring Contributor

Well, congratulations. We all hate you now.

Actually, let us correct that; we all love you now, more than you've ever been loved before. But we may all end up hating you, eventually. And that's probably the bigger crisis.

But first, the fundamentals.

Step one: Sign the lottery ticket and call the lottery office.

Now.

If there's a way to dispute ownership of that ticket, it's going to happen  everything from claims of a verbal agreement to splitting the winnings to outright theft. This is particularly likely if you both play in your office pool and buy tickets separately  a judge recently ruled that a lottery winner had to part with some of the winnings because it wasn't perfectly clear which tickets were his and which were in the office pool.

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If you've identified a winning ticket, you need to get to lottery officials at once so they can identify you. The physical piece of paper in your hand is like carrying around a multi-million dollar check. The risk of it being lost or stolen is too great to wait, particularly if you don't follow step two ...

Step two. Shut up.

There are six states that allow a lottery winner to remain anonymous: Kansas, Maryland, Delaware, Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio. Every other state requires a lottery winner to be announced publically, and many of those states prohibit the use of third parties to claim a prize. They want human beings waving a giant check in front of a camera.

But the one consistent strain in the tales told about lottery winners — both those who have truly prospered after hitting the jackpot and those who eventually fell to ruin — is that they suddenly and permanently become the focus of unwanted attention. Family members will come to them looking for relief from their own financial hardships. Religious groups will almost immediately ask you to share your blessings with the needs of the faithful. Charities you've never heard of will look to you to expand. And among these supplicants will be straight-up charlatans looking to exploit your lack of experience with wealth.

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Keep your win a secret for as long as you can. That's the universal advice from winners.

Step three. Call a lawyer and a certified financial planner.

When the inevitable requests for money begin pouring in, you're going to want to be able to deflect to someone who can politely say no. You're also probably going to want to set up trusts that can manage contributions to charity and to your dependents in a tax-efficient manner. This will require the help of an estate planning attorney and a certified financial planner.

(By the way, you are probably going to want to take the lump sum payment and not the annual award. We know, we know; but the annual payments are more money over time! They're not. Inflation and the likelihood of future tax increases on dividends and capital gains make the lump sum payment more valuable now. If you want to spread out the cash, fund an investment trust with the lump sum. You'll earn more.)

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The trusts are important, not just for tax and legal purposes, but because they put a decision-making layer between you and those demanding your help. This is not to say that you should sign over the right to control the money. Never do that: Sign nothing that grants someone else the power to make significant disbursements from your accounts without your signature. But once the money is securely in your bank account, your biggest problems aren't going to be financial any more. They're going to be about your relationships and your character. If you fail the tests of relationship and character, then you'll have financial problems again.

Many of the stories of lottery winners broken by their good fortune stem from radical changes in their lifestyle.

People buy giant mansions, oblivious to the carrying costs of the property, or they buy fancy cars without understanding the higher maintenance costs. At least as common, people make large investments in legitimate-but-risky business ventures without fully understanding the likelihood of failure. Establishing relationships with trustworthy financial advisors is essential.

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Step four. Hit the books.

Of course, it can be hard for a layperson to evaluate the trustworthiness and advice of one financial advisor over another. So … you need to stop being a layperson.

Resolve, now, before other financial commitments are made, to spend at least one year quietly learning the principles of financial management. Enroll in classes. Start reading Rich Dad Poor Dad and the like. Perhaps more importantly, you'll need to be able to tell people that you're not going to dig deep into the money you've won until you're confident that you can use it wisely. Reasonable people will understand your thinking … and unreasonable people will out themselves with their reaction.

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George Chidi is a journalist and researcher in suburban Atlanta. George has covered crime, politics, technology and business over a 16-year career, most recently with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a growth, crime and general assignment reporter.