How acute was America’s lotto fever Wednesday? Just before the Powerball drawing, officials had to ratchet up the projected jackpot: Nearly $580 million, fueled by a last-minute ticket frenzy that saw machines print at a rate of 130,000 entries per minute. It was a day of big bucks and big dreams, as customers cashed in on their fantasies of striking it rich, dreaming of waking up today a millionaire.
But ask any past lottery winner and you quickly learn that it’s not that simple. Somewhere between matching the numbers and claiming the cash, there lies the logistical nightmare that may well pit you against the media, the IRS, some long-lost cousins—and maybe even kidnappers. As Powerball now awaits confirmation on the two winning tickets sold Wednesday, TIME set out to fact check the great lottery fantasy, turning to Richard Morrison, a Long Islander who raked in $165 million in Mega Millions winnings in 2009, for his insights as to what lottery winners must do in the crucial hours after those fateful numbers are called.
Lives can change in an instant, as Morrison knows all too well. Here, his five tips on what to do — immediately — if today’s your lucky day:
Sign and Secure Your Ticket – Before you quit your job or call your ex to gloat, you’ll want to sign your ticket so that no one can take your winnings. Lottery officials say your signature is the best way to protect your ticket in the event that it’s lost or stolen. Next, find somewhere safe to store the ticket while you plot your next move. Your house might not be as safe you think, Morrison says. After he and his wife signed their ticket, they scanned it for good measure and then immediately placed it in a safety deposit box at a local bank.
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Lawyer Up – When the public finds out that you’re a multi-millionaire, things will start moving very, very quickly. It’s important to have a team in place to help you handle your money and notoriety before the chaos begins. After winning, Morrison says one of the first people he talked to was his accountant. Within hours he’d called his lawyer and was assembling a team tax specialists and estate planners to help him understand how to make use of his winnings. “We did not come out until we knew that we were in the best fiscal and legal and tax shape that we could be in,” he says. If you don’t have any legal counsel you trust, he recommends reaching out to past winners to find out which lawyers they used.
Protect Your Family – Ever heard of kidnap and ransom insurance? If you win the lottery, advisers may suggest that you consider it for your family, as they did Morrison. He opted out, but did hire a security detail to protect his home and even drive his daughters to and from school in the week after his lotto win was announced. “We weren’t taking any chances,” Morrison says. “It was very scary for two of my girls that had children. Someone could just want to pull over and try to swipe a grandkid.”
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Claim Your Prize at an Undisclosed Location – While you’re getting all your financial ducks in a row, the vultures will already be swarming to figure out who got the payday, since many states announce both the town and the establishment where the winning number was picked. Avoid the media circus by going to a lottery office far away from your hometown to claim your prize. Morrision and his lawyer — Michael Solomon of New York‘s Solomon & Herrera — drove two hours from Hauppauge N.Y. all the way to Fishkill to claim the prize, and they used the lawyer’s wife’s car to avoid being tailed. After that there was no escaping the TV cameras, boxes of mail, and constant phone calls, so the Morrisons had only one recourse…
Plan an Escape Route – No doubt media insanity will commence when the Powerball winners are announced. The best way to deal with it is not to participate at all. After the Morrisons had given the press conference required under the terms of the lottery competition, they drove straight from the lotto office to the airport and hopped on a plane to Hawaii for a two-week vacation. By the time they got back, their 15 minutes of fame had thankfully elapsed.
If you’re clutching a golden ticket right now, dazed and unsure of what to do, use your last days of anonymity to develop a coherent plan for your newfound wealth. You’ll have an entirely new life the moment your good fortune is thrust into the public eye. “It’s very surreal to go from your everyday life to having to duck the press and to have TV trucks lining your street,” Morrison says. “Unless you have a good team around you, it can be more of a nightmare than you can ever imagine.”
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