Here's the Scoop: April 4, 2012
What are the odds?
Like millions of other folks across the country, I was glued to the TV set last Friday for the Mega Millions lottery drawing.
Moments after the winning numbers were selected, I excitedly raced around to compare the numbers I had just written down to the ones on the lottery tickets I had purchased. It didn’t take much searching around in my wallet to figure out a chilling reality — I had NO chance of winning. There were zero lottery tickets for me to check. None.
You know the “odds of winning” that all the newscasters were so fond of talking about — mine were much higher. Infinitely greater, actually. Even though the Mega Millions drawing of more than $650 million seemed to be the only news item in the days leading up to the drawing, I had somehow managed to be one of three people in the country who failed to get in on the action.
Each day leading up to the drawing, I would make another excuse why I hadn’t purchased any tickets. “The lines will be too long. I’ll stop back later,” I told myself.
Or, “I’m going to wait until the winning numbers come to me in a dream.”
I don’t know how to explain it, but as the hype grew to a roar, it somehow felt that I had purchased tickets. That I could be a winner.
But, for whatever reason, for all my thinking about buying tickets, I hadn’t actually given in to the basic human tendency toward unbridled greed. Therefore, on drawing night, I had no ticket. And no hope.
It’s hard to explain how I actually convinced myself, for a short time, that I was “in the game.” Even as I dug fruitlessly around my wallet, there was a place deep my brain that was firing disappointment signals.
“Hey, Buddy,” the realistic part of my brain was telling me, “you’ve got zero chance. Remember, you didn’t want to be one of the sheep? You preferred to be cheap.”
The good news is that my foraging for the “winning” ticket didn’t last long. I ended this exercise in futility quicker than a police car parked on an interstate slows traffic flow.
As a consolation, I began referring to all the Internet stories that had been popping up explaining why “winning” such huge prizes usually turns out to be a bad thing. No matter how high the jackpot, lottery recipients often go broke as they embark upon crazy spending sprees.
Do I know you?
Much of this money, it turns out, is spent on the brand new “best friends forever” who suddenly appear on the scene. And the long-lost relatives who turn up on the doorstep wondering why the family has drifted so far apart.
Typical comments from these distant relatives apparently include: “We could see a lot more of each other if our family had a new car. Or if we owned a large house — with a pool — near you!”
That’s when it struck me — it’s much better to have a relative win a huge jackpot. Lo and behold, when I got up the next day, I learned that one of the three Mega Millions winners was from Baltimore County in Maryland. Hey, I have a sister-in-law who lives there!
Just in case she held the winning ticket, I searched out my sister-in-law’s e-mail address (I confess to not writing her in awhile, but I’ve been busy). I dropped her a loving note telling her how much we miss her. I’m sure, I wrote, that she’d really like to see us much more often — and that could happen if we had a place of our own near hers. And season tickets to the Orioles. And spending money for those overpriced hot dogs and beverages.
As luck (bad) would have it, she wasn’t the holder of the winning ticket. We are going to see her this summer, though, and will be attending an Orioles game. But I somehow ended up paying for the ticket. She must think I won the lottery.
— Brian Sweeney
Three winners of the record-breaking U.S. lottery jackpot now face a series of daunting decisions about how to handle their share of the $656 million prize.
Tickets sold in Kansas, Illinois and Maryland matched all six numbers in Friday’s Mega Millions drawing. None of the winners had come forward as of Sunday evening.
Advisers say jackpot winners should take a “cooling off” period of three to six months. During that time, they should avoid making any big decisions about their investments or spending. [Related: Charitable Donations: What You Need to Know]
“People need time to adjust to this huge change in their lives,” said Michael Garrison, of Garrison Financial Inc., in Chatham, Mass. “The fear is that people get this lump sum and go crazy,” he said.
One winning ticket was purchased at the Motomart in Red Bud, Ill., a town of 3,700 an hour south of St. Louis. “I was as excited as if I won,” said Darla Beckette, the assistant manager who dealt with “gobs of reporters and gobs of TV people” all weekend. “There even was a couple from St. Louis who said they just had to come check it out.” The Motomart owners will receive $500,000, based on that state’s lottery rules.
Another winning ticket was sold at a 7-Eleven in Milford Mill, Md., just outside Baltimore, less than four hours before the Friday night drawing. The couple that owns the store will receive a $100,000 bonus. The Kansas Lottery would say only that its winning ticket was purchased in the state’s northeast. [More from WSJ.com: It’s Time to Dial Back on Risk]
Wealth-management experts and financial planners say that whoever wins the jackpot faces a series of critical decisions in the first few days.
First is deciding whether to take the lump sum or 26 annual payments. Wealth advisers generally recommend taking the lump sum for its tax advantages and planning benefits.
Charles M. Aulino, director of financial planning for the Glenmede Trust Co., said that since tax rates are likely to increase in the coming years, taking a lump sum now could result in a lower tax bill. What’s more, if the winner dies before the annuity stream is paid out, the total value of the future payments could be subject to a one-time estate tax—which could be difficult for a winner’s family to pay.
Advisers say taking the lump sum now also allows the winner to place the winnings in a trust, that could then be used for estate and tax planning.
In Illinois and Kansas, winners have a year to claim their share of the jackpot, which, if they choose the lump sum payment, will come to between $105 million and $110 million after taxes, depending on the state. Winners in Maryland have 182 days to come forward. Winners will be identified in Illinois, but can remain anonymous in Kansas and Maryland if they wish. [More from WSJ.com: Financial Planning on a Limited Budget]
“We’ll encourage them to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame,” said Maryland lottery spokeswoman Carole Everett.
As the jackpot swelled since the last winner on Jan. 24, lottery hopefuls spent nearly $1.5 billion on tickets for Friday’s drawing. Nearly 30% of those sales, or $430 million, came on that day alone as talk of the record jackpot swept the nation.
The total payout if all three winners take the money in lump-sum payments would be $474 million. The total would rise to $656 million if they all take the annual payments. About half of Mega Millions sales goes to prize payouts, 35% ends up in state coffers, and 15% is for retailers who sell the tickets and lottery operating costs.
Some previous winners of eye-popping jackpots have found it didn’t buy happiness. Jack Whittaker, a West Virginian who won $315 million in 2002, was robbed at a strip club. By 2007, he said his bank accounts were largely empty. He told reporters: “I wished I’d torn that ticket up.” [More from WSJ.com: Read What Your Broker Sends You]
Studies show that while winning isn’t always a blessing, it isn’t necessarily a curse. A 2006 study of lottery winners in Britain found that winners’ mental well-being vastly improved. Other studies show those who win six-figure prizes are far less likely to go bankrupt, and few entirely blow their winnings.