If you win big, you'll want to shut down your Facebook, hire a financial planner, and get ready for your life to change.
Photo of a UK lottery ticket via Flickr user Iain Watson
In middle school, we had to read Steinbeck's The Pearl, which is about how awful getting rich quick is. The SparkNotes version: A guy's son gets stung by a scorpion, and he doesn't have money to pay the doctor until he serendipitously finds a precious treasure inside an oyster. As a result, he becomes the victim of arson, has to stab a would-be robber, and ruins relationship with his wife.
In modern times, we don't open mollusks until an extremely allegorical gem pops out; we play the lottery instead. And like Steinbeck's poor protagonist, a lot of people who have struck jackpots end up finding out that winning is sometimes the fastest way to lose for good. There are countless stories of people getting million-dollar lotto windfalls and turning to drugs, making bad investments, getting robbed or even killed by family members, going deep into debt, and killing themselves. Picking lucky numbers doesn't solve all your problems, and a lot of times, it can create new ones that make the old problems seem like cherished friends.
As it turns out, there are lawyers who specialize in the niche field of advising instant millionaires on how not to blow their windfalls. To learn more about what I should if I ever scratch my way into wealth, I called up one of these lawyers, Jason Kurland––who calls himself the "go-to" attorney for lotto winners––and asked him for some preemptive advice.
VICE: First off, this is a pretty unique area of law. How did you get into it?
Jason Kurland: I kind of fell into it five years ago. Somebody won a large jackpot in Connecticut and wasn't sure where to go, and he worked for one of my clients. So my client basically said to him, "Listen, this is one lawyer I can trust with my life. I don't know if he does this sort of thing, but you might as well call him, and he'll direct you in the right way." He called me, and we do estate planning and stuff like that so we were able to help him, and we worked with him for about a month or so before he claimed [his winnings].
That was pretty highly publicized, and then from there somebody won $300 million in Rhode Island, remembered me, and called. So I went to Rhode Island and helped and then started promoting [this as something we do]. We started getting call after call dealing with every kind of lottery issue you can come up with, until it's become this niche market.
OK, so what's the first thing you should do if you have a winning lottery ticket?
First thing, you want to sign the back of it, because [a winning ticket] is what's called a bearer instrument—technically whoever hands it in is declared the winner. If you sign the back of it, you secure that it is yours. And I tell the big jackpot winners to sign the back, but to leave some room above it, because if we decide to claim it in a trust fund or an LLC or any other kind of entity, you will be able to write the name of that entity above it, and then sign as a trustee or something like that. So sign the back, make a copy of it, and preferably put it in a safety deposit box, or hide it somewhere in your house.
Then what you want to do is start hiring your professionals. You want to call a lawyer for sure—I am talking about if you win $1 million or more, you should do this stuff. Call an attorney, a financial planner, an accountant––that's the team you're gonna need. Obviously the bigger the jackpot, the more necessary it is to get a team like that. Get your team in place, keep quiet, and don't tell anybody. You can tell your immediate family, but as soon as word gets out your life is gonna change, and you don't want your life to change unless you're ready for the change. That time between knowing you won and claiming to the whole world you won is like your last chance of keeping your old life the way it was.
Then figure out how you want to do with the money, because everybody's first instinct is never what they actually want to do when they think about it. So you need that time to figure out what you want to do. Then at least nobody is banging on your door asking for handouts.
Do you do this before you even contact the lottery commission?
I would, because every state is different when it comes to the process. On the big jackpots, you file an initial claim, and they'll do a background check on you. But if you're gonna wanna claim it as a trust or an entity, you really need to do that first, because it's really difficult to change it once you hand the ticket in. I know a lot of people just want to get the ticket out of their hands and bring it to the lottery office, but if you call us first, we can help you walk through it.
Is there a possibility of the lotto ticket expiring? That's what I would be nervous about.
Yeah, but you have six months to a year, depending on where you win, to do it. This whole process I am talking about takes two or three weeks; it's not a long time. So we'll set you up with an entity or a trust in a day and get it done.
Can you explain the benefit of putting it in an entity or a trust?
First of all, if you can preserve any kind of anonymity, you wanna do that. You wanna limit your exposure. So a lot of the winners choose to form a trust just for that purpose, so that the name of the winner is gonna be the trust. So if you're looking up in the past who won $300 million two years ago, it's gonna say the name of the trust rather than your name. Because people are gonna look for you whether it's for handouts, charities, investment opportunities, whatever.
It's interesting you say you shouldn't tell people about it. It's a stupid idea to put it on social media, obviously.
Oh, forget it. If you win like a large jackpot––I think it's $300 million this week––the first thing you've got to do is shut down your Facebook because even if you don't write on social media that you won, your name is gonna come out, and everyone is gonna be looking at pictures of you and your family. So just get it off the internet.
What about the people who appear on the local news what seems like every other week talking about their big win? Are their lives over?
Everyone is different. I tell winners, "Do you want to be in the spotlight? I can get you on the reality shows. I have reality TV calling me, and they would love a winner. If you wanna be famous, I can help with that, but if you wanna kind of go on with your life, and do it the right way, don't go on any shows." I remember when it was $1.6 billion, the family from Tennessee went on the Today Show before they even claimed the ticket. I thought that was insane.
You mentioned that what people initially want to spend their money on changes with a little more thought. How so?
Most people just want to pay off their debt, which is [usually] the correct thing to do. But sometimes, all of a sudden they say, "I wanna buy houses for me and my family," and when they meet with a financial advisor, they realize that it may not be the smartest thing to do. Maybe we wanna invest it, let it grow, and then figure out what they're gonna do. A lot of people say they're gonna quit their job immediately, and when they think about it, they don't want to quit.
But a lot of it is a mental thing. It's not easy for people to change their lives. Everybody thinks that since they have all this money they're gonna change their lives, but it's sort of a scary thing when your life as you knew it is over. So there's a lot of growing into it that you have to do.
Why do so many winners go broke?
If someone wins let's say $50 million, after taxes it's $25 million in their account. Then they buy a house, which is fine, but then someone they know says, "Listen, I have this great real estate investment opportunity, you put $10 million in, and you'll make $30 million." And they do it because they don't know how real estate works—you could lose it that way. Or you can say, "I wanna start a business that I've always dreamed of starting, what's the worst it'll cost me, $5 million?" Then you realize you have to put another million into it, and then another $3 million.
One of the services I provide for large winners is, I say your attorney should be the bad guy. So anybody who asks you for any kind of investment, tell them that you've hired this attorney, and the only way he took you on as a client is if he got the final say of where you spend it. Then I would talk to the client, and figure out what they want to do—if they wanted to spend on something, then I would let them spend on something, but I would explain that maybe it's not a great idea, and if they were just afraid to say no [to their friend], then they use me as the guy who says no. It seems to be a service that a lot of the bigger winners take me up on.
Do people lose money to scams a lot?
Oh tons of times it's just someone off the street trying to rip your wallet off, but it could also be someone who has a brochure of a development he wants to build, in Florida or South Carolina, you know all they need is $6 to $10 million, money to get going, and when you really look into it, there is nothing there. A lot of these winners are not sophisticated enough to see it, so you really have to rely on the professionals.
Have you ever had a client whose life changed so much that they ended up saying, "Oh man, I wish I never won?"
I haven't had that, but I've definitely read the stories about that. Luckily people who have hired me are concerned about their lives changing, and I am able to help them with that.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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