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SJan 19, 2011

What to Do If You Win the Lottery

Scott Burns

Q. Suppose you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to win the lottery. In what order should you seek help in managing the winnings?  Who should you contact first for advice? Should it be an accountant? A financial adviser? Or a lawyer? 

Also, is there a minimum amount you should win before seeking help for managing such winnings? For example, some folks are lucky enough to scratch off a $1 million dollar ticket. Would you recommend seeking the advice of the above trio? Common sense tells me yes, but if the IRS gets most of the money it might not matter.  Also, if I didn't just go hog wild spending on idiot things, is it possible that I wouldn’t need to seek that help?

Hope to hear the answers soon as I am really feeling lucky! ----D. H., by email

A. Some wags regard lotteries as a special tax on those who are terminally hopeful.  If that is the case (and I don’t have an opinion because a lot of very bright people also live in a world of illusion), then professional advice would probably be essential.

The first person to see would be a good tax accountant. The tax accountant can help you select the most tax- efficient way to receive the money, lump sum or annual payments. While the annual payments route doesn’t put much cash in your hand immediately, it avoids creating an immediate gigantic tax bill for getting into a top income tax bracket all at once. In addition, if it is efficient to choose the monthly payment route, you won’t need the lawyer or financial advisor. You can just go fishing.

This assumes the amount is something most people can imagine, like $50,000 or $100,000 a year.

If your winning ticket is really one of those tickets people dream about--- a promise of millions--- you’ll need to see a fee-only financial planner to help you figure out a lifetime investing and spending plan. This will help you get a reasonable idea of the standard of living you can enjoy and maintain indefinitely. Most people think it’s a bummer to be rich today, but poor tomorrow.  Planning will also let you know early, before you blow it all, that it takes a truly enormous lottery ticket winning to let you buy most of the things people dream about.

A yacht may still be out of reach. If so, it’s better to find out before you buy one.

If the prize is humongous, such as the recent $380 million won by two tickets in the Mega Millions lottery, you’ll still need that advice because people really tend to spend too much when they think they have an inexhaustible supply of money.

Many years ago a friend of mine who was single inherited a nice sum of money--- enough that the dividends and interest would be about the same as what he earned in his day job. A woman friend asked him why he didn’t buy a Rolls-Royce, since he now had so much money. His answer: “If I buy the Rolls-Royce, my investment income will go down and my expenses will go up. I’ll be Rolls-Royce-poor, just as most people are house-poor. I don’t want to be Rolls-Royce-poor; I want to be cash-rich.”

Q. I bought a TIPS fund (VIPSX) over a year ago in my IRA account.  It was recommended by Consumer Reports Money Adviser.  I have a nice gain on it now and am wondering if I should sell it.  I’ve read that we are going into a period of deflation, so I don’t know if this fund should be kept in that situation.  Should I invest it in something else? ---M.M., Austin, TX

A. While the purchase of TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) is less advantageous than it was 5 or 6 years ago, they are still the only easy hedge we have against loss of purchasing power due to inflation. We are in a period of very low inflation for the consumer price index, but that isn’t the same as absolute deflation. You also need to consider that conventional bonds now have very low interest rates and their market value might decline if interest rates start to rise again. Given a choice between these two horses, riding the TIPS is probably the better choice.

Filed Under: Government, Taxes & Other Disasters, Q&A (from print)