Thinking of Going Off the Grid After Winning the Lottery? Not So Fast
Everyone dreams of it: having a small piece of paper with the right numbers printed on it and winning the life-changing $200 million, $700 million or $1 billion jackpot. But what happens after you win?
Many winners decide to remain anonymous — or at least try to — but that can be difficult when many states demand that the winners of large jackpots show their faces at news conferences.
At his own news conference in Madison, Wis., Manuel Franco, 24, who in a Powerball drawing last month won $768 million, the third-largest jackpot in United States lottery history, seemed to be trying not to divulge too much information about himself, perhaps to keep random family members from coming out of the woodwork. Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, he declined to say where he grew up, where he lived, what kind of car he drove or where he used to work. (He quit two days after winning.)
Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, North Dakota and Ohio allow lottery winners to conceal their identities if the winnings exceed a certain dollar amount, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Other states, like New York, make it easy for winners to collect their prizes under the cover of an L.L.C. or an entity. But states like Wisconsin want winners to come forward to claim their prizes, although Wisconsin does not require them to appear at a news conference as Mr. Franco did.
After Mr. Franco’s $768 million win, “it seems a little ridiculous that there isn’t privacy when it comes to that,” Gary Tauchen, a Wisconsin state representative, said. “Certainly you have a lot of fourth and fifth cousins and it is just a situation when you’re under high stress.”
While Mr. Franco was answering questions about his lottery winnings as concisely as possible, Mr. Tauchen was introducing a bill seeking to ensure the privacy of lottery winners in Wisconsin.
“I know that it is one of those life-changing experiences when you need some time to adjust,” Mr. Tauchen said. “You don’t need the stress of other people putting pressure on you.”
And for jackpot winners like Mr. Franco, the pressure comes nearly immediately.
“For the next two weeks, people are going to be outside of his house,” Jason M. Kurland, a lawyer who has represented several winners of large lottery jackpots, said on Wednesday.
“I get those letters every week,” Mr. Kurland said, referring to the mail he receives intended for his clients. “They range from congratulatory letters to individuals having a tough time asking for handouts, to organizations looking for donations, to business men and women asking for investors.”
Mr. Kurland, who calls himself the Lottery Lawyer and represented the person in South Carolina who won the $1.54 billion Mega Millions jackpot last year, advises his clients to delete all their social media accounts before they claim their winnings. He also tells them to try to remove their address from public view as much as they can and to get new phone numbers. If there are children involved, he will hire security for the first couple of days.
Mr. Kurland tries to help his clients retain some privacy after they win, but if privacy is hard to achieve in 2019, anonymity is nearly impossible.
“It is very hard to participate in civil life and be anonymous,” Albert Gidari, the privacy director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, said on Wednesday. “You can’t buy a car in cash and avoid disclosing who you are because now car dealers are financial institutions,” Mr. Gidari said, adding that it was nearly impossible to transfer money in and out of the United States without disclosing who you are to the government.
“He can get a lot of lawyers and accountants and figure out how to move and hide a lot of that money at great risk to himself for not complying with government reporting,” Mr. Gidari said. “You can’t get very far, but you can get far enough to get some degree of obscurity, even if you can’t get anonymity.”
Last year the winner of a $560 million Powerball jackpot in New Hampshire took the state to court to retain her anonymity while claiming her prize. The woman’s lawyers argued that she would be accosted with requests for money, and the state argued that lottery winners must be disclosed to make sure that winners are not related to lottery employees and that winnings are distributed fairly. The court decided disclosing the winner’s name would be an invasion of privacy and allowed the woman to anonymously claim her winnings.
“You want to be able to enjoy this crazy amount of money you luckily won, but at the same time you want to keep your privacy, so it’s a balance,” Mr. Kurland said.
But going off the grid, setting up shop on the beach and enjoying the fruits of your ticket are not necessarily possible without informing the government.
“If you leave the country, it’s worse,” Mr. Gidari said, adding that leaving the country and failing to report assets in the United States and abroad could lead to losing those assets.
Some states allow the winners of large jackpots to remain anonymous, but is it ever possible to retain your privacy after a life-changing windfall?
Staying Anonymous After Winning the Lottery
How Do Multiple Winners Claim a Lottery Ticket?
Patricia Wood, whose father won a share of the Washington State Lottery in 1993, told CNN, “I wish he’d had the option of staying anonymous.” When Wood’s father mentioned his desire to help family members, relatives emerged from everywhere. Wood’s experience is not unique among lottery winners, but staying anonymous is not always possible. However, according to state rules and the preference of lottery administrators, some winners have found ways to stay in the background.
While it may be human nature to want to flaunt it when you’ve got it, some lottery winners do question that logic. They’ll start hearing from family members and friends, charities and self-proclaimed “financial experts” who want to help them control the cash. Some of these people are bound to be unscrupulous. Prize winners often fall prey to scams and even serious blackmail plots. For these reasons, many would prefer to take the cash without revealing their identity.
State Disclosure Rules
Most states, including those that participate in multi-state lotteries such as the Powerball or Mega Millions, demand the winners names go public. Some states will publish the winner’s name, while others insist the winners appear at a press conference. Even when smiling for the cameras isn’t required, winners may find their privacy is still compromised. MSN reported that the neighborhood of a 2012 lottery winner in Arizona was deluged with members of the media right after his name was published.
Lottery runners claim identity disclosure of winners is essential to prove the games are on the up-and-up. Otherwise, lotteries might be tainted with speculation that insiders are benefiting from large jackpots. Jeff Hatch-Miller, executive director of the Arizona Lottery, told MSN winners are “essentially entering into a large contract with the government that is public.” It’s also good for business. Lotteries claim the publicity shots of winners — such as the classic shot of the everyday person holding up a large check with a huge number — encourages people to buy tickets.
Successfully Staying Unknown
Some lottery winners have been successful in remaining behind the scenes. They set up a trust or a limited liability company to claim the money, and a lawyer shows up to get the cash. This may be an option for winners who normally have some time — 60 days for the lump-sum cash option in the case of Powerball — before they have to come forward. In addition, as of 2013, winners in Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, North Dakota and Ohio could choose to skip the spotlight entirely.
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Patricia Wood, whose father won a share of the Washington State Lottery in 1993, told CNN, "I wish he’d had the option of staying anonymous." When Wood’s father mentioned his desire to help family members, relatives emerged from everywhere. Wood’s experience is not unique among lottery winners, but …