Separating from your spouse smashes the whole what's-mine-is-yours-and-what's-yours-is-mine atmosphere of couplehood like a fist through drywall. Even before the ink dries on the first pleading of your divorce case, you're thinking of yourselves as economically single again, so if you play the lottery and win, the winnings ought to be yours exclusively. While this may be true in many states, your state might make you share your winnings with your ex even after you've filed for divorce.
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Definition of the Marital Estate
In both equitable distribution and community property states, courts seek to divide only marital property, not separate property. A state's definition of marital property, however, can influence whether post-separation lottery winnings are marital. Some states, such as North Carolina, use the date of separation as the end date for the accumulation of a marital estate; in these jurisdictions, post-separation lottery winnings are safe from division. Other states, such as New Hampshire, use the date of entry of a legal separation or divorce decree to mark the end of the estate while others use the filing date of a separation or divorce complaint.
Discretion of the Court
Even in states that don't cut off the marital estate at the date of separation, the court isn't always compelled to award part of a party's post-separation lottery winnings to the other side. Keep in mind that most states follow equitable distribution, which allows a court in its discretion to award an unequal division of the marital estate under certain circumstances. If it strikes you as wrong that you should have to pay out part of your prize money to a party who doesn't deserve it, a judge may agree with you.
Indirect Ways for Your Ex to Get His Hands on Your Prize Money
Assuming for the sake of argument that the judge in your case either can't or won't award part of your post-separation winnings to the other side, there are back-alley ways for your ex to get some value out of your good fortune. If child support is an issue, he may be able to use your receipt of lottery winnings to lower his support; if you're receiving payouts over time, this will probably count against you as income on the guidelines worksheet. If you have a potential alimony obligation, winning the lottery could make the amount of your payment go up; conversely, if you had an alimony claim against your husband, the lottery could wipe it out.
The Value of Silence
If you're truly concerned with having to share lottery or sweepstakes money with an undeserving ex-husband, your best move will be to keep your mouth shut unless the law in your state requires you to disclose your winning. In an uncontested divorce with no discovery being done, you might not have to disclose anything. Don't tell anybody you're playing the lottery, don't tell anybody you're entering a sweepstakes and don't tell anybody when you win. Don't go on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter and gush about your good fortune. Just be quiet, let the divorce decree go in and when the smoke clears, drive by his house and wave at him from the window of your new Mercedes. However, talk to a lawyer first.
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- Divorcesource.com; Lottery Winnings Acquired During Separation; National Legal Research Group, Inc.; 1995
- Daily Tribune; Lottery Winnings Part Of Divorce Settlement; Michael Hutson; November, 2010
- Divorcesource.com; Division Of Lottery Winnings: Joint Venture; National Legal Research Group, Inc.; 2003