Big lottery winners often prize anonymity

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By JIM SUHR, Associated Press

RED BUD, Ill. (AP) — The tiny Illinois farm town of Red Bud is the kind of place with few strangers and few secrets. Yet the community of 3,700 has a lingering mystery on its hands: Who bought the winning Mega Millions lottery ticket, and why hasn't the winner of the world-record $656 million jackpot come forward?

Though secrecy surrounds the ticket sold at the MotoMart convenience store, lottery officials note it's not unusual for winners to lay low — and those who advise them say it's just plain smart.

It's exactly what the Kansas winner of the March 30 Mega Millions drawing decided to do. Kansas Lottery Director Dennis Wilson said the person came to the agency's Topeka headquarters Friday morning with an attorney and some financial advisers. Wilson said the person does not want to be identified, even by gender — something Kansas law allows.

"They obviously don't need the publicity," Wilson said. "They're not used to the publicity of where they're from, where they live."

A third winning ticket was sold in Maryland, and questions fester about a woman claiming to have it.

For all of its promise, instant riches come with a price, starting with the immediate barrage of calls from relatives and distant friends eager for a handout. Never mind the need to hire specialists to address tax implications and craft a disciplined investment strategy that could avoid the fate of past lottery winners who've spectacularly burned through vast fortunes or found they were better off before they struck it rich.

"I'm so happy I'm seeing this. This is exactly what they should do," said Susan Bradley, a Florida certified financial planner and founder of the Sudden Money Institute, a resource center for new money recipients such as lottery winners. "Some people are really afraid — scared of blowing it, losing who they are and being taken advantage of. Hopefully they're getting their ducks in a row and starting to settle into the magnitude of the experience.

"If you understood how unbelievably complicated this is, you might not play," she added. "That's not to say that winning is a bad thing. (But with a jackpot), all your old problems are over and all your new ones are just starting."

Some states, such as Kansas, don't require winners to reveal their identities. Even in those that do, winners can find ways to stay out of the public eye.

In Rhode Island, Kathleen Last took nearly a month before claiming a $60 million Powerball prize on Tuesday, then had her attorney, Edmund Alves, pose alongside the oversized lottery check during the official announcement. While her name and hometown were required to be revealed, Last was under no obligation to speak publicly about the lump-sum payout she chose — $25.6 million after taxes, with some of that windfall intended to help a disabled niece requiring expensive care.

"It's a natural human wish to maintain privacy when you have a lightning bolt strike you and you have a life-changing event," Alves told The Associated Press on Friday. "There are a lot of people approaching you from all sides for donations, gifts and whatever, and you want to just stay under the radar. She's been trying to maintain some normalcy and stay out of the limelight as much as possible."

In Maryland, the spotlight has been on Mirlande Wilson, a McDonald's worker who has claimed to have one of the winning Mega Millions tickets, only to tell NBC News on Thursday that she misplaced it. Her attorney, Edward Smith Jr., said the attention caused Wilson's blood pressure to spike and has kept her seven children from playing outside.

"She still wants to go back to her life and be anonymous," Smith told reporters. "Let's be human about this. It's just money, people."

In Illinois, big jackpot winners are compelled to make themselves public to prove the lottery is paying out its prizes — something that wasn't done decades ago when such games of chance were scams, Illinois Lottery Superintendent Michael Jones said. Though the lottery could insist winners do a news conference, Jones said officials offer some wiggle room to those who want privacy.

"We will work with whoever the prize-winner is," he said. "But we would publicize as much as we can about the winner as is needed," and "ultimately an enterprising reporter can find out who that person is."

Maryland Lottery spokeswoman Carole Everett said of eight Mega Millions winners there since 2002, only a man named Ellwood "Bunky" Bartlett made his identity public. One couple and a woman who won initially came out but later asked that officials remove their names from publicity materials, Everett said.

Bartlett and about a half dozen other recent U.S. lottery winners did not return telephone messages seeking comment for this story.

"It's so hard for a lottery winner not to go out and shout it to the world," said Bradley, the Florida financial planner.

Some winners, for whatever reason, don't ever claim their prize.

For example, a winning Powerball ticket worth $77 million sold last summer in Georgia ended up expiring in December after no one came forward within the required 180 days, making it the state's largest unclaimed ticket since the lottery began in 1993. The unclaimed money was returned to each of the nearly three dozen participating Powerball states.

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Associated Press writers Sarah Brumfield in Baltimore and John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this report.

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