What Should I Do if I Win Mega Millions?

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With jackpots that have climbed to over a billion dollars, Mega Millions is one of the world's most famous lotteries. Who hasn't dreamed about becoming an instant multimillionaire, all thanks to a lucky ticket?

The current jackpot starts at $20 million and keeps rolling until it's hit by a ticket matching all six winning numbers. Someone has to take it home, and that could be you.

But before you start shopping for a fabulous private tropical island or luxurious castle, there are some practical matters to be addressed. Sure, winning the lottery is the kind of problem that everyone would love to have, but you still need to take the right steps to plan for, manage, and protect that enormous overnight wealth so you can continue to enjoy it for years to come.

We've all heard about winners whose stories turned out anything but happily ever after, so read on to learn how to safeguard your windfall.

Protect Your Ticket

First things first - always sign your lottery ticket right away. While you're at it, fill out any other required information on the back of the ticket, such as your address and phone number.

If you don't sign, and the ticket is lost or stolen, chances are any prize it wins is gone for good. If you forget the ticket on the counter or a gust of wind blows it out of your hand, your signature is the only thing that establishes your ownership of that potentially very valuable scrap of paper.

A lottery ticket is what's known as a "bearer instrument" - unless it is signed, anyone who has it can claim any prize won. If you haven't signed the ticket, there's a big fat zero that you can do about someone else taking your winnings.

Snap a clear picture of the front and back of the signed ticket too, in case you need proof of the win.

Okay, you've gotten the ticket home safely. Now keep it secure. Don't leave it in your wallet, your car, your pocket - and especially not in the random junk drawer. Put it somewhere nice and safe until you find out if it's won a payout. Ideally, store a winning ticket in a home safe or bank safe deposit box.

Zip Your Lip

Although you'll naturally want to tell the world about your win - shout it from the rooftops, do cartwheels down the street, maybe hire a skywriting plane - experts have one word for you ...

Shhh!

The time between when you win and when you claim is a critical period. You know you've gotten a huge windfall, but you haven't made a plan yet. You don't want to tell everyone and their dog and put yourself in the crosshairs of scammers or worse.

Now is the time to keep schtum as much as humanly possible. At most, divulge the news to close family. Take a deep breath, sit down and think about your priorities for the money and how to achieve them. Pause and ask yourself how you see your life going forward and most importantly, how to make the money last to take care of you and your family.

Plan Your Future

Hitting the jackpot is life-changing and will create a whirlwind of excitement and feelings. It's critical to make a plan to manage your windfall strategically, and that takes time. Do not just wing it. You want your winnings to last and provide a wonderful life for you and your family. Move slowly to help you avoid making any big decisions you may regret. Some winners make the mistake of treating their windfall as if it's inexhaustible, leading to reckless choices.

Put a team of pros together to help you make a long-term plan, including a lawyer, accountant, and financial adviser. Take your time to research and find the right people - and don't be shy to ask for a second opinion.

Plan where you'll put the payout before you receive it. Don't keep it in your checking account, which makes it more likely you'll spend it. Separate it from the rest of your money right from the start, for example in its own savings or investment accounts. Also, individual bank accounts are only insured for up to $250,000, so it makes sense to divide the payout among multiple accounts and banks.

Be prepared for people to ask you for money. It's sensible to get a financial adviser to screen these requests so you can deal with them in a more arm's length way and keep your sanity.

Pause and consider the broader implications of what you want to do with the winnings. Some winners set up foundations or do charitable work. What do you want your legacy to be?

Claim by the Deadline

Tick-tock - that's the sound of the clock running down on your prize. At some point, poof! It will disappear. Lottery prizes expire after a certain period of time, which varies by jurisdiction. Depending on where you bought the ticket, you may have 90 days or up to a year from the draw date to claim your win. But once the prize is gone, it's gone for good.

Missing out on a huge prize is more common than you'd think. The biggest losers include a 2011 Georgia Powerball win valued at $77.1 million, a 2002 New York Mega Millions prize of $68 million, and a 2015 California Super Lotto ticket worth $63 million!

If you don't claim in time, the jackpot is returned to the states according to what they contributed from ticket sales. The states then use the money for priorities like schools or to fund future lottery payouts.

With that said, winners often claim much earlier than the deadline - but coming forward before you have a plan for the money can lead to hasty decisions you may regret later.

Here are the claim periods for all Mega Millions jurisdictions, counted from the date of the winning draw:

  • 90 days: New Mexico
  • 180 days: Arizona, Arkansas, California (non-jackpot wins), Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming
  • 182 days: Maryland
  • Six months: U.S. Virgin Islands
  • One year: California (jackpot wins), Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont

Claiming Your Prize

Claim procedures vary by jurisdiction, so always check with your state lottery to find out the latest requirements. Here are some general guidelines.

In most states, you'll have a choice between claiming your prize in person or mailing the ticket to the lottery.

Some states, like Florida, also have secure drop boxes in lottery offices where claims can be safely deposited.

Claiming in person may not be an option if your state lottery's offices are closed due to coronavirus measures. However, some lotteries make an exception for jackpot winners, or have extended their claim deadlines so you can visit when restrictions are lifted.

If you are able to claim in person, you'll likely have to contact the lottery to make an appointment.

Here's what you'll need to bring to the claim center:

  • The original signed winning ticket, with your address or any other required information filled in
  • A completed winner claim form
  • Valid photo ID, such as driver's license or passport
  • Proof of social security number

To claim by mail, you will need to send the same documents as above to the lottery, including original ticket and claim form. Send a scanned copy of your ID and proof of SSN - originals are not required.

Photograph or scan the front and back of the signed ticket and claim form before sending and keep for your records.

Allow plenty of time for the lottery to receive your documents before the end of the claim period. In some states, a postmark before the deadline counts, but in others it does not.

It's a good idea to send the claim by registered mail or another trackable type of sending. The lottery is not responsible for lost documents.

Can You Stay Anonymous?

You should opt to stay anonymous if it's allowed in your state. Keeping your identity private offers you protection from intrusive media attention and the potential dangers that come with it.

Eleven states offer lottery winners the choice of anonymity: Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia (you have to give up 5% of your prize, however), and Wyoming.

Even if your state doesn't allow anonymity, another option may be to have your lawyer form a trust or company to claim the prize for you, shielding your name from the media glare.

If these options aren't possible, you can still take steps to maintain your privacy. Direct media requests to one of your team, change your phone number, send your mail to a PO box, and move out of your home or take a vacation until the buzz cools down.

Celebrate!

Congratulations - it's finally time to pop the cork and toast your win!

Enjoy your wealth, but do it wisely. Experts advise not to make any big decisions, like quitting your job or moving, within the first six months after your win. Stick to your plan and don't spend more than 10% of the prize in the first year. Now go and have fun!

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