Personal Finance

For winner of $344.6 million Powerball jackpot, here are 5 things to do first

Key Points
  • A ticket sold in North Carolina matched all six numbers in Powerball's Saturday night drawing.
  • Experts recommend that winners tell as few people as possible about their windfall.
  • They also stress the importance of assembling a team of professionals to help navigate the win.

Someone who bought a Powerball ticket in North Carolina woke up a whole lot richer Sunday morning.

After more than two months of twice-weekly drawings with no one hitting the jackpot, a single ticket purchased in the Tar Heel State matched all six numbers in Saturday night's drawing to nab the $344.6 million top prize.

While that jackpot has reset to $40 million for Wednesday night's drawing, Mega Millions' haul has reached $475 million for Tuesday night's drawing.

MARK RALSTON | AFP | Getty Images

If you are the lucky person holding the winning Powerball ticket, or you're fortunate enough to win big in Mega Millions, here are some things that experts recommend doing right off the bat to protect your windfall.

1. Chill

While you might be eager to claim your winnings, experts say it's best not to rush over to lottery headquarters the day you discover you've become one of the wealthiest people in the country.

For both the Powerball and Mega Millions jackpots, winners get anywhere from three or six months to a 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 to claim your winnings. That should include assembling a team of experienced professionals: an attorney, financial planner, tax advisor and insurance agent.

"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.

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2. Protect your ticket

The standard advice from experts is to sign the back of the winning ticket so that if you are separated from it, your signature can help ensure you still get the prize.

However, signing it could interfere with your ability to shield your identity from the public, depending on where you bought it. A handful of states let you claim anonymously, while others require the winner's name to be announced. Others will allow a trust or other legal entity to claim the prize on your behalf, thereby keeping your name out of the public eye.

In North Carolina, where the winning Powerball ticket was bought, lottery winners cannot remain anonymous.

3. Keep quiet

Your first urge might be to share your exciting news with, well, the world. However, the fewer people who know, the better. This is the case even if you are able to claim your prize anonymously.

"Obviously it may be impossible to keep this from immediate family, but news like this travels quickly," said Kurland, who specializes in helping lottery winners. "Try to keep the circle of people who know as small as possible."

If you won't be able to dodge publicity due to state law, consider changing your phone number or living somewhere else temporarily to avoid media attention and sudden money requests from long-lost friends or relatives.

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4. Weigh the payment options

Jackpot winners get to decide between taking an immediate lump sum or spreading out their winnings over three decades. Either way, the IRS will take 24% before the money reaches you.

For the $344.6 million Powerball jackpot won on Saturday, the cash option is $223.3 million. For the $475 million Mega Millions haul still up for grabs, the cash option is $307 million.

The 24% federal tax withholding would reduce the Powerball cash option by about $53.6 million, to  $169.7 million, and Mega Millions' by $73.7 million, to $233.3 million. However, because the top marginal tax rate is 37%, the winner should anticipate owing more to Uncle Sam at tax time.

Additionally, state taxes typically are withheld or due, depending on where you live and where the ticket was purchased. For the Powerball winner, North Carolina will withhold 5.5% for state taxes.

5. Take a deep breath

Before spending a dime, think about what your sudden wealth means. Not just financially, but emotionally.

Instead of giving in to the temptation to buy big-ticket items right off the bat, give yourself time to process the magnitude of your win.

This is often when winners begin to think about their legacy and what societal contributions they want to make. Some even set up their own charitable organizations.

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This is what you do if you win the lottery
This is what you do if you win the lottery