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Life-changer: how would you cope with a big lottery win?

It's something most people dream about, winning a big lottery. But would the money make you happy? Here's some thoughtful advice.

 Do I really want to win the gazillion-dollar lottery? Of course, I do.

A big lottery win could change a person's life, for better or for worse.
A big lottery win could change a person's life, for better or for worse. 

I think.

I've daydreamed plenty about what I'd do if I won a big lottery. Or at least if I won what used to pass as a big lottery. (Winning $20 million now sounds kind of ... understated, at least in an era when the Powerball jackpot is so large that the dollar figure no longer fits on some lottery billboards.) I've thought about what that moment of realisation would be like as I read off the numbers.

I can guess what the eventual Powerball winner might tell the media: "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. I started shaking. I read and re-read the ticket five times. I asked my wife" (or maybe husband or bartender or co-worker in the break room) "to tell me if I was dreaming."

Then they'll talk about how they realised they could instantly get out from under crushing debt, quit that sucky job, get a car or house they always dreamed of, and help out their church and kids and parents.

I wonder, though: Do really big lottery winners ever think to themselves "Oh, crud. What have I done?"

We all know the stories. We've heard of lottery winners who blew their fortunes or had friends, family members and con artists put the squeeze on them. There was the guy in West Virginia who apparently already was financially successful when he won a massive lottery and his life started a long, awful slide that included divorce and the apparent drug overdose of his granddaughter.

I imagine winning a billion bucks is like the most searing shot of adrenaline to our financial lives. It could be a streaming rocket ride or maybe a jagged sledgehammer to the heart.

Winning that much money is the ultimate single-question final exam: Does money corrupt more than it creates?

Of course, none of that comes up in the big advertising campaigns I see by lottery corporations empowered by our state governments to convince us to buy into the dream.

(I do have to give credit to the California's lottery folks, though. They put out a handbook for winners with advice on what to do if they hit the numbers.)

I called a couple of Atlanta pros in the business of helping people deal with lots of money. I wanted their advice for anyone who wins the Powerball jackpot or any other big, unexpected windfall.

But first I asked them if they planned to buy Powerball tickets. Both said yes, for the entertainment of it. Which is kind of interesting, particularly given what else one of them told me.

"I have a lot of clients with a lot of money, and almost all of them I would never change places with," said Stephanie "Stevie" Casteel, a trusts and estates attorney. "Money changes things. It ruins families. It ruins friendships. ... You worry about how it affects your children."

Some people who come into money "are never really comfortable because they don't know who to trust," she said.

Yet she'd like to win the lottery?

"I would like to try," she said, "and see how I do."

Money, or at least dreams of money, does breed optimism.

Casteel represented Erika Greene, a metro Atlanta woman who, at the age of 20, split a more than $100 million (pre-tax) lottery jackpot in 2002.

Greene called to claim her prize right away, something she probably regrets, Casteel said.

"People tried to take advantage of her," Casteel said. She remembers Greene received hundreds of packages and letters, plus cookies and balloons, from people seeking her attention and funding. A woman asked for $5000 so she could go on a honeymoon. Someone tried to get her to buy a horse.

But Greene encircled herself with Casteel and other advisers before doing anything. More than a decade later, Greene is still doing well, Casteel said.

I'll take that as hope. Of course, the tens of millions Greene won pales compared to the potential take on the gazillion-dollar jackpot.

So here's my wish for whomever wins the next giant lottery: Don't let it ruin your life. Or the lives of your kids. Or grandkids.

Don't become – or stay – a dipstick. Have fun with the money, it's yours after all. But, I'm hoping you don't blow all of it on yourself and your own little circle. Use it to make the world a better place.

Let us know how that goes.

First things to do after you win the lottery:

Advice from Stephanie "Stevie" Casteel, a trusts and estates attorney with Wallace Morrison & Casteel in Atlanta, and Barry Berlin, a managing director with Atlantic Trust, a wealth management firm.

Casteel:

  • Keep it quiet as long as you can.
  • Put the winnings in an entity such as a limited liability company.
  • Take the lump sum over the annuity so you can control the funding more. (Clark Howard suggests going the annual payments route because it will help limit the chances of blowing the entire fortune.)
  • Create a team of professional advisers including a lawyer, a CPA and a banker. They can give investment suggestions, act as a buffer from people demanding money and limit things such as gift taxes, which can be 45 per cent after the first $5.54 million.
  • Think about what you want your legacy to be, using the money.
  • Form a family foundation to donate money.

Berlin:

  • If you have a home phone, make the number unlisted. Get a new cell number and email address. "Every crazy and wannabe is going to come out of the woodwork, and you don't need to deal with that."
  • Get advice from a security service about personal protection.
  • Gather your loved ones and ask for their reactions and thoughts. If you are religious, talk with your religious adviser.
  • Find a trusts and estates attorney, a strong CPA, a property and casualty insurance expert and an investment adviser experienced in working with wealthy individuals. Do a lot of vetting of potential team members online.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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