As a bankruptcy lawyer in Indiana for the past twenty-plus years, I’ve met with tens of thousands of people as they faced filing bankruptcy. I know that every one of those people, during the stressful months and years leading up to their decision to file bankruptcy, would have considered that winning the lottery would erase all their problems forever. In real life, however, fantastic windfalls have turned out to be a curse as often as a blessing.
Although the people I’m going to talk about here were not my own bankruptcy clients, some well-publicized examples of lottery winners with unhappy ends to their stories occurred during the years I’ve been practicing bankruptcy law. For example, the winner of the March 1983 $9.7 million purse in the UK adopted a lavish lifestyle and went broke. On his deathbed, the 1996 Canadian lottery winner of $7 million confessed that the lottery money had isolated him from all his friends. The 2001 Powerball winner of $46 million ($27.1 after tax), bought 18 expensive cars and a Florida mansion, ending up with almost no money. . The West Virginia businessman who won $315 million in the Powerball Multi-state Lottery on Christmas Day, 2002, has been arrested for drunk driving, has had checks cashed fraudulently on his account, and is being sued by a casino for failing to cover gambling debts. The 2003 British lottery winner of $17 million was sentenced to nine months in jail after having spending $2 million on drugs and going on a rampage in a bar.
On the other end of the spectrum we can find examples of people who used their lottery winnings to make a difference in the world. The nineteen year old 1988 winner of $55 million founded the Sheelah Ryan Foundation, which helps abused women and the elderly. In 1993, the Shermans from Washington State won $8 million, and they help their community college by giving grants to faculty and scholarships for students. The 2006 North Dakota winners of $39 million help grade schools and boys’ and girls’ clubs. There are lots more wonderful stories like these; sadly, most cases of lottery winners are not so inspiring.
As a bankruptcy attorney who spends his working life counseling people on money matters, I am very interested in these sad and happy lottery winner stories, because they reinforce my perception that often it isn’t money that is evil or that causes problems, so much as the way money is handled. And what that says to me as a consumer bankruptcy specialist is this: although the bankruptcy court system exists as a safety net for people whose financial circumstances have run amok (often through no fault of their own), the most important part of a bankruptcy story is the same part that’s most important when someone wins the lottery. That important part of the story is the sequel! I try to devote my best efforts to helping my Indiana bankruptcy clients handle their new circumstances, now that they have been given the opportunity for a fresh start. My wish for everybody is that the fresh start they’ve been afforded by the Indiana bankruptcy system safety net will turn out to be a blessing for them and their families.