Things to Do When You Win the Lottery

You just won the Power Ball Lottery, you won’t ever have to worry about money again–right?

Wrong.

With good money management you–and your heirs–could live handsomely for many, many years. But from the moment that you claim that prize, you will be descended upon by vultures who want a hefty helping of those winnings. And if you didn’t have smart money habits up until now, you could easily turn out to be your own worst enemy by quickly squandering the fortune. The first precautionary step you should take between now and the drawing is to sign the back of the ticket. A lottery ticket is a bearer instrument, meaning that whoever signs the ticket and presents a photo ID can claim the prize. So if you haven’t signed the ticket and it blows out of your hand while you are waiting for a bus, or if you show it to a buddy in a bar and accidentally leave it on the counter, you’ve lost the loot.

Here are some steps to help you steer clear of additional risks. Most of them work well for other windfalls too–for example with sudden wealth that comes from an inheritance or the sale of a business.

1. Remain anonymous if your state rules permit it. Once people know you’re suddenly wealthy, you’ll be badgered by requests for handouts from everyone from charities to long-lost friends and relatives–not to mention all the financial “experts” who will be vying for your business. So check state rules to see whether you can dodge them all by remaining anonymous.

In New York, for example, winners’ names are a public record. Elsewhere it may be possible to maintain your anonymity by setting up a trust or limited liability company to receive the winnings, Depending on where you bought the ticket, prize winners have between 180 days and one year from the date of the drawing to claim their prize. So find out what the state rules are and plot a course.

2. See a tax pro before you cash the ticket. You have the choice between taking the prize money all at once and having it paid out over 26 years in the form of an annuity. With a lump sum payment, you must immediately pay tax on the entire amount. With an annuity, you are taxed only as you receive the payments. People who have trouble controlling their spending might prefer the discipline of receiving the money as an annuity. But this payout form has other drawbacks. You will want to compare the effective yield of the annuity with what you could earn by taking the money as a lump sum, paying the taxes and investing the proceeds.

Another issue to consider is whether taking an annuity will leave your family without the cash they need to pay estate tax if you die before the 30-year period is up. In such situations people typically buy life insurance policies to cover the estate tax bill. You have 60 days from the time you claim your lottery prize to weigh the pros and cons. During this time, ask advisors to crunch the numbers and help you decide which type of payment suits you best.

3. Avoid sudden lifestyle changes. For the first six months after you win the lottery, don’t do anything drastic, like quitting your job, buying a home in Europe, trading up for a luxury car or building a collection of handbags. Meanwhile, set aside a fixed amount for splurges—it’s only natural to want to celebrate your windfall.

Save the big purchases for later. For example, you could rent a house in the neighborhood where you were thinking of moving, before you make any commitments, If you need a new car, buy a budget model for now.

4. Pay off all your debts, there is no better investment than paying off debts. Whether it is credit card debt or a mortgage, your rate of return equals the interest rate on the loan. With today’s abysmal yields on relatively secure investments like CDs and Treasurys, that’s especially true. When you’ve paid down a dollar of debt, that’s a dollar you no longer owe. When you invest a dollar, you can’t be sure whether it will grow or shrink.

5. Assemble a team of legal and financial advisers. Rather than signing on to a group of advisors that someone else has put together, he recommends handpicking your own lawyer, accountant and investment advisor, and requiring them to work together. Carefully vet each advisor before discussing your situation. Check broker records at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. For attorneys and insurance agents, see whether there have been any complaints filed with state disciplinary authorities.

If you live in a small community and don’t want lawyers there to know your business, seek out a professional in the nearest large city. Names can be found on the nationwide lawyers’ directory that you can search by location and area of practice, and on the Web site of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, a group of trust and estate lawyers.

6. Invest prudently. Ely recommends putting the money in safe, short-term investments and not even touching it for the first six months. Then ask your advisors to put together an investment portfolio divided half-and-half between equities (such as stocks) and fixed income (like bonds). Don’t fall for investments that you don’t understand or that sound too good to be true.

7. Live within a budget. Especially if you’re not accustomed to having a lot of money, it may take some discipline to preserve your winnings and not go on a wild spending spree. One way to restrain yourself is to only spend income–not principal. Especially in today’s investment world.

8. Take steps to protect assets. People who are worth a lot of money need to guard against losing assets to creditors. They include everyone from disgruntled spouses and ex-spouses to people who win lawsuits against you. If people think you have deep pockets they may look for reasons to sue.
The best defense is to erect a variety of roadblocks that make it difficult, if not impossible, for creditors to reach your money and property. These asset protection strategies, as they are called, can range from relying on state-law exemptions to creating multiple barriers through the use of trusts and family limited partnerships or limited liability companies. It may be possible to rely on a variety of strategies, either separately or in combination with each other.