If You Hit The Lottery, Does Your Soon-To-Be Ex-Spouse Get A Share?

Congratulations! You gambled a buck, bought a lottery ticket, and won a cool $100,000! It's your lucky day! Unless, of course, you happen to still be in that state of "separated but not yet single" stage that occurs somewhere between marriage and divorce. In that situation, you may end up having to share your winnings. Here's what you should know.

The Laws Of Your State Are An Important Factor

The laws of the state that you live in are going to factor strongly in how the situation plays out. When you're married, all the property that you and your spouse acquire (including that lottery ticket) belong to you as a couple.

When a couple begins the process of divorce, that rules continues until whatever cut-off date exists under state law. After that point, the courts will generally consider independently acquired property to belong to the spouse that acquired it.

In some states, like Alaska, the cut-off date is as early as the date of separation -- which means that if you moved out well before you bought the ticket, you might be able to claim the entire winnings for yourself. In other states, like Kansas, the cut-off date isn't until the divorce petition is filed, even if you've lived separate lives for decades. Some states, like Louisiana, may make you divide up your earnings if you purchased that ticket even a day before the judge's final decree is issued.

Several Factors May Influence How The Money Is Split

It hardly seems fair that if you and your spouse were living separate lives for the last 10 years before you hit the jackpot that you should have to divvy up your proceeds just because you never got around to (or maybe couldn't afford to file for) an actual divorce.

If you choose to fight an even split with you ex, the courts will usually consider several different factors:

  • Who purchased the ticket? In other words, who put the effort into acquiring the property? While it may not seem like "work" to purchase a lottery ticket, the courts tend to award the benefits of someone's individual labor to that individual alone.

  • How long have you been separated? There are few exact laws, but a lot of legal precedents through various case laws (because this sort of situation happens more often than you might think). However, determining a date of separation can be tricky: if you simply say you are separated but your behavior doesn't reflect it (because you keep having meals with your ex, go to family events together and file your taxes together), the court may decide that actions speak louder than words and order you to split the winnings more or less evenly as marital property.

  • Are there any other financial issues, such as alimony and child support? If you owe alimony and child support, your winnings are likely to affect the amount that you have to pay, even if you're clearly separated or already divorced. If you took a lump-sum payout, the court may decide to award your ex a specific percentage. Some lottery tickets offer payments by an annuity. In that situation, the court will most likely consider that yearly income when calculating (or recalculating) your support obligations.

  • Did you attempt to conceal the winnings? Courts generally frown on any type of deception when it comes to hiding potential marital assets or income that could be used to calculate support payments. In that case, you could find yourself facing punitive measures: the court could award the entire windfall to your ex.

If you're in the middle of a divorce, separated but still legally married, paying spousal or child support, and you find yourself holding a winning lottery ticket, consult a divorce attorney promptly. That's the best way to find out how the rules in your state work and what factors may affect your case.