By, Walter W. Blenner
Earlier this year I became one of only a handful of attorneys nationwide who have represented a lottery winner of what is called, “extreme wealth”. This prize of $451 million won here in Florida was the fifth largest lottery win in US history. However, it was soon to be eclipsed by someone in N.H. who won over $560 million. Regardless of what one thinking about any one single person winning this kind of largesse, it is a new reality in the world of Powerballs and isn’t going away. And most all winners of big wealth need help navigating these unfamiliar waters.
While I’ve spent most of my legal career representing clients with severe injuries after accidents as well as estate planning, my venture into lottery winners began almost 4 years ago when I got a call out of the blue from a gentleman who won $3 million in – believe it or not – a scratch-off ticket.
There can be parallels between winning $3 million and $451 million: In both of cases, the men who purchased the winning ticket had no experience managing any kind of wealth. My relatively modest $3 million winner was a middle-aged single dad of adult children who was a laborer and who worked from paycheck-to-paycheck. My extreme wealth winner was all of 20 years of age and who also had more debts than assets and zero experience with managing anything more than an income tax refund. He instantly became one of the wealthiest Americans alive, yet because he had to quit his job and go into hiding, he was a multi-millionaire on paper but without any available cash.
Is there any difference in logistics when one wins the Lottery whether big or small? Not really. What does one do when holding a very valuable piece of paper? Most attorneys agree to the best practices rule, i.e., sign the ticket, put it in a safe place, tell as few people as possible and go into hiding. Quit your job if you need. Line up your experts before you head to Lottery Headquarters and establish your corporate vehicle so everything is in place when you cash in your ticket to receive the wire transfer of money.
One big difference, however, is the inherent risk of impending danger with extreme wealth winners. While it may be reported in the media that a local resident won a multi-million lottery ticket, when the win is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, there is almost an audible buzz in the community and in my recent case, throughout the country. This win was announced in every possible national media outlet. To instill the sense of potential harm and the need to seclude his immediately family into hiding, I had to advise my client that one insurance company does offer ransom and kidnap insurance. This worked. The client and his family relocated out of town in a rental town under as assumed name. Within hours of the announcement, media trucks started staking out the store where the ticket was purchased, reporters start interviewing locals to speculate who it might be, and, when someone drops out of sight, everyone who knows him or her starts to get very suspicious.
My big winner had a cubicle job and was a rising star in his company. His boss respected his work ethic and his co-workers liked him very much. When he just stopped showing up for work with a variety of transparent texted excuses, the questions started coming from co-workers: “Hey buddy, was it YOU?”, “Do I now have a very rich friend?” His boss, however, was worried that something nefarious happened to her favorite employee and sent these torturous text message that tore at my client’s sense of guilt.
There is always a tension between wanting to cash in this ticket worth a ton of money and the need to secure all the variables necessary to protect your new-found wealth. While most want to cash in as soon as possible, the better rule is to take your time. Once you’ve protected yourself and your family, take the time necessary to do your homework and line up a team with whom you’ve met, interviewed and now trust. The other side of the tension is, the longer a client waits, the more likely word of the identity of the winner will leak out drip-by-drip from various sources in the know.
A common misconception is a lottery winner can only be competently represented by professionals in big cities. Manhattan, Boston and Los Angeles have very talented professionals, but I’ve now worked with professionals in local communities and I’ve heard from other highly respected individuals who deal with clients with extreme wealth from all over the country in both big and smaller cities. Not all wealth accumulates in a big metropolis. And almost all wealth managers spend much of their time in airports traveling to see clients all over the globe.
Does the size of a lottery win affect what one does with the money? Absolutely. The largest difference in legal representation of Lottery winners is between a modest win and a huge windfall. After my $3 million winner paid his $1 million in federal taxes, he bought himself a nicer home and car and gifted some family members an amount. His remaining funds were well under $1 million and after meeting with a simple financial advisor a plan was put into effect to help grow his money over time. He took some time off from work, traveled, had a good time and before too long was back at work and now lets his money work for him.
However, when one has one half a billion dollars, the scale changes dramatically. This kind of wealth needs constant tending. As I analogized to my young client about the size of this wealth, this isn’t like the big dog that needs to be walked twice a day, this is more like the elephant in the living room that needs constant attention. In fact, it’s like a herd of elephants. And, at $451,000,000 it’s like trying to take care of an entire zoo. It cannot be done alone.
Over time I’ve consulted with a variety of lottery winners and not all winners need legal representation, especially when they’ve had experience dealing with savings and investments and the win is several million dollars. But those with little to no experience with wealth and those who’ve won money akin to the gross national product of Thailand absolutely need help. And help should come in the guise of a team. It’s not unusual for a “big win” client to have an ongoing relationship with a tax attorney, a CPA or accounting firm and a host of wealth managers, from full service diversified companies to even registered investor advisors (RIA) who manage funds on a fixed percentage.
Those with extreme wealth are generally not active investors – they already have all the money in the world and the don’t need the risks of the stock market to grow their money. Most monetary growth is done modestly and while some enjoy investing in smaller ventures (see everyone on Shark Tank), if one doesn’t aspire to grow to a billionaire conservative wealth management is the way to secure one’s future and that of future generations. Many set aside money in a trust for a philanthropic legacy and with the tax savings of a life insurance policy still make money in the process while leaving a large chunk for a favorite charity or cause.
And finally, despite being around such wealthy clients’, attorneys who represent Lottery winners are not enriching themselves exponentially. It is unethical to charge a percentage of the Lottery win and all attorney’s fees must be reasonably related to the work effort that one does on an hourly basis. Still, as stressful as it can be to help transport a client and his winning ticket to Lottery HQ, it is as fun and rewarding as anything else I’ve done in the law.
Picture credit: alphaspirit / 123RF Stock Photo