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?
Which States Allow Lottery Winners to Remain Anonymous?
How and Where Jackpot Winners Can Avoid the Spotlight
When most people think of winning the lottery, they dream of buying a new house, riding around town in a limo, or telling an annoying boss that they are quitting. Much more rarely do they imagine paparazzi surrounding their homes while old acquaintances and complete strangers come out of the woodwork to beg for a handout. Can lottery winners protect themselves by remaining anonymous?
The Controversy Over Anonymity
There are pros and cons to allowing lottery winners to remain anonymous. While some jackpot winners might enjoy being in the spotlight for a little while, others have experienced negative consequences. These have included broken relationships with friends or family members who wanted a share of the money, campouts around their house by journalists hoping for a story, and safety concerns.
Many of the lottery curse victims suffered from the fame that came with their jackpot win, being robbed or even murdered for their money. Other winners experienced bomb threats or frivolous lawsuits from people hoping to profit from a settlement.
On the other hand, publishing the winners’ names is good for the entire lottery system. It makes it easier to uncover scams, for example, like one involving Multi-State Lottery Association computer programmer Eddie Tipton. Tipton snuck code into the program that’s supposed to randomly draw winners, making it possible for him to predict the numbers that would be drawn. He used this hack to win several lottery prizes, but was caught when he bought a winning ticket in his own name. When his identity was revealed, the connection to his work became obvious and the scam was uncovered. If he could have cashed the ticket anonymously, he might have gotten away with stealing millions and millions of lottery dollars.
Revealing the lottery winners’ names also builds trust and excitement, which drives ticket sales. In 2013, New Jersey governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have let lottery winners remain anonymous for a year, despite overwhelming bipartisan support for it, saying: “This bill could undermine the transparency that provides taxpayers confidence in the integrity of the Lottery and its games. Moreover, the bill could have the unintended consequence of reducing Lottery sales by hampering marketing efforts and the public excitement generated when Lottery winners are announced.”
Which States Allow Lottery Winners to Stay Anonymous
Powerball Rules About Staying Anonymous Vary By State
Although Powerball is a national lottery, individual states have leeway about how they handle the game. They can set their own rules about where the lottery ticket money goes, how long winners can wait before they claim their winnings, and whether or not entrants can remain anonymous when they win.
Most states have chosen to require winners to reveal their identities. So far, only nine have decided in favor of letting winners choose whether to go public or not.
The states that allow lottery winners to remain completely anonymous are: Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, North Dakota, and Ohio. Some of these states have restrictions about how large the prize has to be before you can claim it anonymously.
In some states, you can create a trust or an LLC and claim the lottery jackpot in your organization’s name. This can help shield your identity from the curious.
Some other states have made exceptions to their anonymity policies in cases where the winner can demonstrate that revealing their name would put them in significant danger.
Note that the state in which you buy the ticket regulates whether you can stay anonymous, not your state of residence. So if you’re a resident of a state like Virginia or Pennsylvania, hopping over the border to buy your tickets in Maryland could help you stay anonymous if you hit the jackpot.
Alternative Ways for Lottery Winners to Protect Their Privacy
In 2018, a woman won a $559 million jackpot from the New Hampshire Powerball lottery. She took several sensible steps before claiming her jackpot, including signing the back of the ticket and hiring a lawyer to help her protect herself. But her lawyer told her that by signing the ticket, she had forfeited the right to remain anonymous by assigning her lottery win to a trust.
Claiming the lottery prize in the name of a trust makes it more difficult for outside parties to determine the winners’ names. This option is not available in every state.
The New Hampshire Powerball winner sued for the right to stay anonymous and a judge ruled in her favor, giving her an exception. However, this won’t work for every case.
So there’s controversy over whether you should sign a lottery ticket when you buy it. Signing it immediately protects you if your winning ticket is lost or stolen, but it prevents you from being able to protect your anonymity.
Even if you can’t keep your name out of the papers, there are other steps that you can take to protect your anonymity if you win a lottery jackpot. One lottery winner held his oversized check in front of his face at the press conference, but it’s unclear if that did much to help him.
A better decision would be to close all of your social media accounts, change your telephone number, and arrange to spend the first few nights after your name goes public away from home. Use the press conference to get your story out so that reporters won’t be hounding you for an exclusive story.
Even if you can’t use it to protect your identity, setting up a revocable trust or charitable foundation can help you protect your winners. If you use an experienced lawyer to set up your trust, you can put restrictions on how and when the money is used. This means that you have a ready answer for anyone who comes to you asking for money. and a defined way of deciding who, if anyone, receives a helping hand from your win.
The most important part of protecting your anonymity after a jackpot win is to keep quiet about the prize and lay low until the furor blows over. Another big winner or another story is bound to come along soon, and the pressure will ease off.
Can you remain anonymous after winning the lottery? Find out which states allow anonymity and how you can protect your privacy if you win.