Sudden lottery fortune no panacea
(CNN) — Jack Whittaker had the noblest of plans.
Upon winning the then-largest-ever $314 million Powerball jackpot in 2002, the West Virginia construction company owner said he wanted to pay tithes to the Church of God, get some of his laid-off workers back on the job and start a charitable foundation.
He might buy a helicopter, and he’d definitely pamper his daughter and granddaughter, he said.
“I’m not going to buy anything for myself,” he said during a news conference announcing his windfall. “The very first thing I’m going to do is, I’m going to go home. I’m going to sit down and make out three checks to three pastors for 10% of this check. That’s the very first thing I’m going to do.”
Already a millionaire via his company, Whittaker predicted the money wouldn’t faze him at all. His life, he said, would carry on normally.
“If I can help it, it’s not going to change. I’m content with my life,” he told reporters. “I’m not going to change my life much.”
Yet by 2007, barely four years after what should have been the luckiest day of his life, Whittaker was a broken-down man who had lost his granddaughter to drugs and who had a reputation for DUIs, frequenting strip clubs and getting robbed. His divorce would be finalized the following year. His daughter would die the next.
In January 2007, responding to a complaint that he hadn’t paid his settlement with a woman who claimed he harassed her at a greyhound track, Whittaker issued a statement to the Kanawha County Circuit Court, saying, “On 9-11, a team of crooks went to 12 different (City National Banks) cashed 12 (checks) and got all my money.”
“I intend to pay but can’t without any money,” the statement said.
Whittaker, of course, is the poster man for lottery winners forced off the tracks, and, certainly, there are many happy lottery winners who took their winnings and quietly went about their lives without so much as another headline in the local newspaper.
Perhaps shockingly, however, about 70% of those incurring a financial windfall lose that money within a few years, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education.
This, in light of the fact that we are nowdays often awaiting the name of the person who purchased the winning Powerball ticket , it’s worth a reminder that sudden fortune isn’t the panacea it’s sometimes made out to be.
Not only can seemingly unlimited income stoke temptations to spurn moderation, but lottery winners may also find friends and family members treating them more like a mark than a loved one, said Michael Boone, a Bellevue, Washington, wealth manager who spoke to CNN after the winners of the $656 million Mega Millions jackpot were announced last year.
“Anytime you’re a public figure, you’re going to attract attention from people who want to take things from you,” he said. “Most of us wouldn’t be too happy if the amount of our paychecks was in the newspaper.”
Charities begin soliciting. Self-styled entrepreneurs approach with pitches. Second cousins come looking for loans. Friends know someone who can help manage the money.
“That’s not to say you wouldn’t want to do something nice for those people, but it could become a full-time job,” Boone said.
His advice would be to remain anonymous, but only Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, North Dakota and Ohio allow winners to avoid state lottery publicity. (Michigan does in certain circumstances, but not for Powerball or Mega Millions winners.) Thus, Boone advises his clients to keep a low profile.
As Michael Norton, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told CNN in 2011, “When you become the rich person, who other people look to, it can actually erode the social bond that you have with people because it changes your relationship from friendship into almost like a transaction.”
What’s the worst that can happen, you ask? Well, Whittaker doesn’t even provide the worst-case scenario.
Earlier this year, Urooj Khan, a man described as a successful, hardworking Indian immigrant, died of cyanide poisoning the day after collecting $425,000 from a scratch-off lottery ticket. No arrest has been made.
William “Bud” Post’s own brother reportedly tried to kill him after he won $16.2 million in a 1988 Pennsylvania state lottery game. Though his brother was imprisoned, Post’s reckless spending and behavior left him broke and divorced before he died in 2006 of respiratory failure.
These are extremes, of course, but there are many cases of lesser tragedies befalling lottery winners.
There’s the British man who squandered a 2002 jackpot of 9.7 million pounds, much of it on cocaine and hookers, only to find himself working as garbage man again by 2010.
And the St. Louis wig maker who won $18 million in 1993, only to spend so lavishly on political and philanthropic causes that she filed for bankruptcy four years later.
Or the New Jersey woman who won the lottery twice — a grand total of $5.4 million — but was so helpless to avoid games of chance that she ended up in a trailer after giving the lion’s share of her money to Atlantic City casinos.
Jim McCullar saw spooky signs before he even collected half of his $380 million Mega Millions prize in Washington in 2011, telling CNN that he was reluctant to even come forward because “all we saw were predators and we were afraid to do anything until we got down here with police protection.”
Winning isn’t always a curse, though. Lee McDaniel of Stone Mountain, Georgia, who won $5 million in the Georgia Lottery in 2010, said in an interview the following year that he didn’t see any downside to the money. He’d helped his sister with medical bills, handed out money to other relatives, remodeled his home, bought an RV and Jeep, and invested a large chunk of the cash.
“I don’t feel that I have changed. I am just very secure financially,” he said.
It’s quite the contrast to Whittaker, and while most lottery winners’ experiences fall somewhere between McDaniel’s and Whittaker’s, it’s safe to say no one wants to follow the latter’s path post-millions.
No one should ever have to tell ABC News, as Whittaker did five years after his windfall, that they’d be better off without the money.
“Since I won the lottery, I think there is no control for greed,” he told the station. “I think if you have something, there’s always someone else that wants it. I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Elizabeth Landau, Greg Botelho and Chandler Friedman contributed to this report.