New Jersey Lottery Winners Gain the Right to Stay Anonymous

Wednesday January 22nd 2020

If you win the lottery in New Jersey, you can now choose to stay anonymous, after a new law was signed by Democratic Governor Phil Murphy on Tuesday.

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The bill, which had bipartisan Democratic and Republican sponsorship, passed the Legislature unanimously. The law takes effect immediately, but it will take some time for the New Jersey lottery commission to write the necessary regulations to allow winners to keep their identities private.

Sponsors of the legislation say it's targeted at what they term the "lottery curse" - abuse and threats that lottery winners can experience when their identities become public. "The winners should have the option of remaining anonymous if they want to stay out of the limelight and away from unwanted attention," said Senate President Steve Sweeney. 

Up to now, the New Jersey State Lottery Commission could put out press releases with a winner's name, town, and county. That includes winners of New Jersey games plus multi-state games like Powerball and Mega Millions. A request for a winner's information could also be made via the state's Open Pulic Records Act.

Critics of anonymity argue that publicizing winners' names is key to citizens' trust in the lottery. The lottery in New Jersey is "a very public game," says the lottery commission's acting director, James Carey. "It  is an arm of the state of New Jersey. We're dealing with public money. And the public has the right to know who's getting the money."

Former Governor Chris Christie agreed, saying that anonymity would "undermine the transparency" of the lottery. He vetoed a 2013 bill that would have allowed jackpot winners to stay anonymous for a year.

New Jersey joins a growing number of states that allow winners to stay anonymous. Five years ago, only five states shielded winners' identities, but with New Jersey's new law the total stands at 11 states that allow anonymity in at least some cases.

Eight states introduced legislation to protect winners' names in 2019, and in ArizonaVirginia and West Virginia the bills became law.

In Arizona, winners of $100,000 or more can now keep their name off the public record permanently. However, their city and county of residence are not private. "Winning the lottery shouldn't come at the expense of someone's safety or privacy," Gov. Doug Ducey's spokesman said.

The state's previous policy also applies, so the name of any winner of $600 or more is kept private for 90 days.

Virginia's 2019 law is somewhat more restrictive, allowing winners of prizes over $10 million to stay anonymous. The amount of the prize and the store that sold the winning ticket can be publicized, but not the winner's name or town. However, the details of winners of $10 million and below will still be public record and can be released by the lottery.

West Virginia's new law offers winners of $1 million or more the chance to remain anonymous - but there are strings attached. You must take a smaller payout, giving five percent of your winnings to the State Lottery Fund.

Currently, nine states allow the option of anonymity for any lottery winner without conditions: Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.

The most high-profile case of a winner remaining anonymous was the woman who won the $1.5 billion Mega Millions jackpot in South Carolina in October 2018. In a statement via her lawyer, she said she wished to "live a life of relative normalcy, free of fear."

In a few other states, winners can claim prizes via a trust or limited liability company (LLC), effectively keeping their identities secret.

In January 2019, a group of 23 Long Island, New York co-workers won the $437 million Mega Millions jackpot and kept their anonymity by claiming via a company, New Life 2019 LLC. That was despite the governor vetoing legislation just weeks before that would have allowed New York winners to remain anonymous.

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