Staying anonymous when you win the lottery can be important to avoid many issues, but only some states currently let you stay secret. That is changing, though, as more states are protecting players by passing legislation allowing winners to remain anonymous.
The issue of staying anonymous has become more visible recently, with several huge jackpot winners choosing not to disclose their identities. Most recently, the winner of the record-breaking $1.5 billion Mega Millions jackpot in South Carolina took advantage of the existing law in the state when she chose to stay secret when claiming her prize in March 2019.
Ten states - Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming - allow lottery winners to stay anonymous if they choose, without conditions.
In Arizona, winners of more than $100,000 can request to keep their personal details from being disclosed.
Some other states, like Louisiana and Pennsylvania, let winners create a trust or company to claim the money on their behalf, so their personal information is not disclosed.
Many people feel that winners should have the right to remain anonymous, as in the past some high-profile jackpot winners have been the target of thieves, while many were unprepared for the huge amount of attention focused on them overnight, and some even feared for their personal safety.
However, the other side of the coin is the argument that seeing real people win lotteries shows that the games are transparent and fair, and any average Joe or Jane really does have the chance to become a millionaire - or even billionaire. This encourages people to buy tickets, which leads to more money being raised for the good causes to which each state lottery contributes.
Staying Anonymous In Virginia
Virginia was one of the latest states to pass a law increasing winners' privacy rights. The law prevents the Virginia Lottery from revealing specific information about winners of $10 million or more, unless the winner allows it. The law came into effect on July 1, 2019.
$10 million is the highest prize on any of the state's scratchcards, so there are only a few winners who qualify for anonymity. The new law tries to strike a balance between privacy concerns and the need for lottery transparency.
Until July 1, 2019, Virginia's Freedom of Information Act meant the winner's name, city of residence, and amount won must be made public.
Staying Anonymous In West Virginia
On January 1, 2019, a similar law came into effect in West Virginia. Anyone who wins a prize of over $1 million can now decide to keep their identity secret.
West Virginia House Bill 2982 states that even if there is a Freedom of Information request, details about big winners will not be made public.
But there's a catch.
The law also says winners who stay anonymous will receive a smaller payout.
If you want to maintain your privacy, you'll need to agree to give five percent of your winnings to the State Lottery Fund.
While this might seem unfair to some, the West Virginia Lottery has donated billions of dollars to good causes in the state since 1986, including more than $3.3 billion to education, over $1.25 billion to senior citizens programs, and $1.1 billion to tourism and state parks.
If the winner's identity is public, the lottery gets a big PR benefit from photos of the winner beaming while holding a huge check and grinning while confetti rains down on them.
But if winners stay anonymous, the lottery loses this valuable promotional tool. The WV Lottery therefore introduced this extra cost, but at least winners who want privacy will know that the five percent of their prize is going to benefit people in the state.
There's also a little bit of red tape for big winners who want to keep their identity secret. You'll need to contact the State Lottery Director in writing or appear at the State Lottery headquarters in person to state your wish to stay anonymous. You will need to give the Lottery your contact information and make an appointment to discuss arrangements to protect your privacy.
The Lottery also advises winners to hire a lawyer and accountant, but not to tell anyone else about your new windfall. The West Virginia Lottery does not take responsibility if the information about your win gets out because you said something or posted on social media.
And if you win less than $1 million, the lottery will still be able to use your name and photograph for promotional purposes.
Why Staying Anonymous Is Important
Some big winners would prefer not to become the focus of so much attention, both from the media and potentially from people trying to exploit them.
We all love to dream about how amazing it would be to win the lottery, but the reality is that becoming wealthy overnight is also a big responsibility. This is why lottery winners are routinely advised to seek help from a reputable lawyer and financial professionals, and tell as few people as possible about their newfound millions.
The winner of the $1.5 billion Mega Millions jackpot in South Carolina said in a statement released by her lawyer that she stayed anonymous because she wants to 'live a life of relative normalcy, free of fear.'
The story of Jack Whittaker of West Virginia is a cautionary tale of how a big win can leave you vulnerable. Mr. Whittaker was a successful businessman before he won a $314 million Powerball prize in 2002. Although he generously set up a foundation for low-income families in WV, he also suffered negative consequences from being a high-profile winner. In 2003, $545,000 was stolen from his car, and another theft in 2004 resulted in the loss of $200,000.
How Jackpot Winners In New York Stayed Anonymous
In December 2018, despite strong support in the state Senate, New York governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed legislation that would have allowed NY lottery winners to stay anonymous.
Just a few weeks later, on January 1, 2019, a group of 23 Long Island co-workers hit the incredible Mega Millions $437 million New Year's Day jackpot.
Like many winners before them, the group wanted to remain anonymous. They hired local attorney Eric Jaffe to help.
And Mr. Jaffe found there was a hidden-in-plain-sight loophole in the law. Ironically, Cuomo's own words when he put the kibosh on the bill were the source of Jaffe's discovery.
'If a person wishes to remain anonymous, the law already allows for such a scenario,' the governor wrote. 'For the past 40 years, individuals wishing to keep their name and information out of the public view have created LLCs to collect their winnings for them.'
Mr. Jaffe took note. 'The triggering factor was Gov. Cuomo's specific statement that you could form an LLC.'
Although the idea appeared to be somewhat 'an afterthought', the winners had no other option. 'So going on that language and some history [of other cases], they opted to form the LLC,' explained Mr. Jaffe.
The winners successfully claimed their prize anonymously as New Life 2019 LLC in January.
Lottery officials were 'very nice' about the group's decision, Jaffe said, although 'it's not their preference - they're in the business of PR and they want your picture holding up the big check.'
Many of the winners, who Jaffe described as 'salt of the earth, working-class folks,' will keep their jobs.
'No one's acting crazy, they're getting good financial advice. There's a long history of lotto winners going bankrupt. They're scared straight about that,' he noted.
'I know they want to travel and pay off mortgages but no one wants to buy the Yankees.'
Staying Anonymous In the Future
For now, most states are sticking to the view that information about winners of big lottery prizes should be made public. That means if you win in a state that makes details public, your name, city of residence, and likeness (for example, photographs and videos of you when you claim your prize) can be disclosed and used for lottery promotions.
But there is an increasing willingness by some states to allow winners to remain anonymous, at least in some circumstances.
For example, in 2018 the winner of a $559 million Powerball prize in New Hampshire was allowed to keep her identity under wraps despite the state's 'Right to Know' law.
It will be very interesting to see how the trend towards greater privacy develops in the future, and whether it impacts on ticket sales for state lotteries as well as multi-state games like Powerball and Mega Millions.