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?
Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots surge: Here’s how to stay anonymous if you win
Somebody could be starting off the new year with a big pile of cash.
The Mega Millions jackpot is growing once again — it’s now up to an estimated $750 million for Friday night’s drawing.
The Powerball jackpot is skyrocketing, too. It’s at $640 million, meaning that $1.39 billion is up for grabs over the next few days.
Mega Millions jackpot surges to record $868 million
While the odds of winning are slim — 1 in 303 million for Mega Millions and 1 in 292 million for the Powerball drawing on Saturday night — you won’t want to take any chances should you hit it big.
As many previous winners have learned the hard way, money doesn’t buy happiness. In fact, winning the jackpot can create even more problems as people come out of the woodwork seeking a piece of the pie.
That means safeguarding yourself and your windfall should be a top priority if you win the prize. Along with hiring a stellar financial and legal team, and donating to charity, the No. 1 suggestion among experts we talked to is staying anonymous.
And though most states require the winner to come forward, there are still ways you can minimize your exposure to the public. We talked to several professionals — including lawyers and one of the world’s top blackjack players — to get their best tips.
1. Buy your ticket in a state that doesn’t require you to come forward.
“The best thing a person can do is buy a ticket in one of the six states that don’t require you to come forward,” Marty King, partner with law firm Gorman & Williams in Maryland, told TODAY. “That means you won’t have to go to the press conference with the big oversized check and show your face.” Those states are Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio and South Carolina. If you live near one of these states, King recommends crossing the border to buy your ticket because the rules apply depending on where you buy it, not where you live.
Man claims $425M lotto prize, shields face with check
2. Don’t tell anyone.
This might be one of the hardest things to do, but it’s super important. “The single biggest thing necessary to stay anonymous would be to tell no one — and I mean no one — about the win,” Josh King, general counsel and consumer protection advocate at online legal services site Avvo, told TODAY. He also recommends that the winner “not meaningfully change anything” about his or her life. “These two things alone will be really, really hard,” he said, “but they’re necessary in order to have any chance at maintaining anonymity.” This will minimize the chances that family members and friends will come after you when they’ve found out you won.
3. Delete social media accounts (and change your phone number and address, too).
We’re in the age where everything is online. So before you claim your prize, make sure you erase as much of your digital footprint as possible. “I would delete every social media account you have and consider changing as much as you can,” said Marty King. “Change your phone number and address if you can, too. If you’re going to be public, you want to make it as hard as possible for people to find you.”
4. Wear a disguise.
Think of old spy movies when it comes to how you’ll dress when you claim your prize — even if you’re forced to make a public appearance and talk to the press. “Alter your appearance and dress differently than you usually dress,” said Rick “Night Train” Blaine, author of “Blackjack Blueprint: How to Play Like a Pro . Part Time” and the titleholder of the “World’s Best Blackjack Player” from the 2015 Blackjack Ball tournament. Blaine — a pseudonym from Humphrey Bogart’s character in the classic film “Casablanca” — uses several aliases and changes his appearance so casinos can’t identify him (see him in disguise here). So if you’re a guy, grow out your beard or shave if you have a beard. Wear a hat, sunglasses, baggy clothes or whatever it takes to look different so no one can identify you.
Or depending on your state’s rules, take inspiration from the sole winner of a $425 million Powerball prize back in 2014, who chose to cover his face with his giant check. Additionally, if your state allows it, ask to use your first initial instead of your full name on the promotional check.
5. Disconnect all phones.
“Have your friend get you a prepaid phone, purchased with cash, which you can register with any area code,” said Blaine. “For example, you buy the phone in New York, you can register it as coming from Nebraska. All you need is to input a Nebraska zip code and you’ll be assigned a corresponding area code.”
6. Get out of town.
If you really want to ensure you’ll remain out of the spotlight and prevent people from hounding you for money, then get out of town or even the country. “It gives you a chance to settle yourself and lets the publicity die down,” Erica Sandberg, personal finance expert and author of “Expecting Money: the Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families,” told us.
7. Set up an LLC or trust.
While it might be impossible to use an LLC to claim the actual prize, once you move to a new place you can buy your home and all of your assets under one to prevent people from tracking you. “Set up an LLC or trust in order to build anonymity,” said Josh King. “The structure you need here will be determined by the law of the state the winner resides in. You’ll need to work with a very experienced, very discreet attorney to do this in a way that it can’t be figured out by a determined investigator.” Marty King agrees, saying, “You’re probably going to buy a new home anyway, so don’t buy it under your name. Using an LLC makes it harder for people to find your new address. Use trusts to hide the identity of any assets. You can hide your new existence.”
8. Don’t make any big purchases for a year.
It may be tempting to treat yourself to a number of shiny new toys, but those purchases also draw attention to the fact that you have money to spend. It’s best to maintain the appearance of your normal life, while quietly working with your money management team. “Have a trusted friend rent a modest place in a remote location under his/her name,” said Blaine. “A place where there are no neighbors.”
This article, originally published in January 2016, has been updated to reflect the latest lottery news.
The Mega Millions jackpot is $750 million while Powerball hit $640 for combined winnings of $1.39 billion. While the odds of winning are slim, don't take any chances if you hit it big.