FA Playbook

Here's what to do if the lottery makes you an instant millionaire

Key Points
  • Following weekend drawings that yielded no top-prize winners, the Mega Millions jackpot has grown to $367 million and Powerball's now stands at $229 million.
  • Experts recommend that winners tell as few people as possible about their exciting news and instead consider how to properly handle their unexpected windfall, starting with their options for claiming it.

If you're lucky enough to hit one of the lottery jackpots — Tuesday night for Mega Millions or Wednesday night for Powerball — you should take a deep breath and resist the urge to tell the world about your exciting news, experts say.

The top prize for Mega Millions is now at $367 million and Powerball has climbed to $229 million.

Mega Millions ticket
Andrew Kelly | Reuters

Instead, consider what suddenly becoming one of the country's wealthiest people means. When you come into a life-changing amount of money, there's more involved than just putting it in a bank account and deciding what kind of new car to buy or where you want to vacation.

"With great wealth comes great responsibility," said certified financial planner Jim Shagawat, president of Windfall Wealth Advisors in Paramus, New Jersey.

Here are a few decisions you'll need to make if you discover you're holding the winning ticket for either jackpot.

Figure out when and how to claim your winnings

There's no need to rush over to lottery headquarters the day you win.

For both the Powerball and Mega Millions jackpots, winners get anywhere from three or six months to one year to claim their prize, depending on where the winning ticket was purchased.

Experts recommended taking a deep breath and using as much time as you need to prepare for claiming your winnings.

"The time between the day you win the lottery and the day you claim is your last period of normalcy," said Jason Kurland, a partner at Rivkin Radler, a law firm in Uniondale, New York.

Make sure you find out whether you can remain anonymous when you claim your prize, because laws governing lottery wins vary from state to state.

In some places, you can easily shield your identity protected from the public. In other states, it's impossible. And in some states that require the winner to be announced, the law allows a trust or other legal entity to claim the prize on your behalf, thereby keeping your name out of the public eye.

Also, the standard advice is to sign the back of your winning ticket in case you are separated from it. However, if you end up having the option of claiming your prize through a trust to protect your identity, your signature could interfere with your ability to do that. This makes it important to know your claiming options first.

Choose between a lump sum or annuity

For the $229 million Powerball jackpot, the lump sum option is $134.3 million. For the $367 million Mega Millions jackpot, it's $213 million.

Many experts recommend taking the lump sum, because if it's managed and invested properly, you could end up with more money over time than if you took payments spread out over several decades.

However, it's important to evaluate your own circumstances before making the choice.

"If you know you have trouble with compulsive spending or know that certain family members will be after your money, you may want to go the annuity route," Shagawat said.

This is what you do if you win the lottery

Remember, too, that either option comes with an immediate federal tax hit of 24 percent. That withholding would reduce Mega Millions' cash option by about $51.1 million to $161.9 million, and Powerball's by $32.2 million to $102.1 million. You also should anticipate owing more to Uncle Sam at tax time.

Additionally, you'll pay state taxes on the money unless you live where lottery wins are untaxed. For states that do take a piece, the rate ranges from a high of 8.82 percent in New York to a low of 2.9 percent in North Dakota, according to lottery site USAMega.com.

More from FA Playbook:

Pick pros to help you

Your ability to properly handle your windfall will only be as good as the advice your given. This is why it's best to turn to experienced professionals for guidance.

Before you claim, you should assemble a team that ideally includes an attorney, accountant, insurance consultant and financial planner. An experienced attorney should be your first call.

"Make sure you're comfortable around each team member, and make sure they have the proper accreditation for their field," Shagawat said. "You need a team around you to guard against being taken advantage of."

Someone on the team also will need to serve as your gatekeeper. That is, they can field requests from moochers or scammers or even friends and family members who want a piece of your windfall.