Merle and Pat Butler of Red Bud, Ill., look happy in the video that has been circulating online. That’s not surprising, because in the video, Merle Butler is holding a novelty check for over $218 million.
He was the last of three winners to claim a share of the $656 million Mega Millions lottery prize that set the record for the largest jackpot in U.S. history.
Most likely, all three winners were pleased. But the Butlers were the only ones whose smiles were broadcast to the world. Maybe they enjoyed their turn in the spotlight; my guess is that they were just being good sports and would have preferred to keep the news quiet.
Unlike the other winners, however, the Butlers did not have a choice in the matter. Illinois requires that its lottery winners present their beaming faces for news conferences and other promotional appearances unless they have “compelling reasons” not to.
In fact, only six states – Kansas, Maryland, Delaware, Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio – allow lottery winners to remain anonymous. As it happened, the other two Mega Millions winners were from Kansas and Maryland. At a news conference, a poster stood in for the Kansas winner. The Maryland ticket belonged to three public school employees, who, like the Butlers, posed with a novelty check, but did so while holding the check, made out to “The Three Amigos,” over their faces.
The other 37 states that run lotteries, along with the District of Columbia, differ in just how much publicity they require of winners. Some, like Illinois, insist on dragging winners before a camera, while others simply publish the winners’ names and let media hounds follow the trail. In some places, including Colorado, Connecticut and Vermont, winners can evade the spotlight by forming a trust or a limited liability company to claim the money on their behalf. However, at least one state, Oregon, explicitly forbids this practice. I can’t imagine the strategy would play well in states that require news conferences, either. No matter where one stands on issues of corporate personhood, trusts and limited liability companies are notoriously un-photogenic.
On its website, the Illinois Lottery has this to say on winners’ obligations: “Matka Multi-million dollar winners must participate in a one-time news conference, but we’ll always respect your wishes of privacy as much as possible.” Illinois Lottery Superintendent Michael Jones told The Associated Press that, despite the stated rule, the lottery would work with prizewinners wishing to retain their privacy. He warned, however, that “ultimately an enterprising reporter can find out who that person is.” (1) Missouri, one of the states that doesn’t require a press conference but does release winners’ names, similarly advises winners that they may prefer to simply get their unwanted 15 minutes of fame over and done with, since “If you choose not to do a news conference, the media may still attempt to contact you at home or your place of employment.”
When it talks about “compelling reasons” for remaining anonymous, Illinois seems to have in mind things like restraining orders. But in my view, most people have compelling reasons not to broadcast personal financial information, particularly news about coming into sudden, unexpected wealth. Dennis Wilson, the Kansas Lottery’s executive director, said that the Mega Millions winner in that state chose to remain anonymous “for the obvious reasons that most of us would consider.” (2)
There is the so-called “lottery curse,” in which big winners quickly find themselves broke after being barraged by requests from friends and distant family members and being aggressively targeted by salespeople. Roughly nine out of 10 big prize winners lose their windfall within five years, according to both a Florida study that looked at bankruptcies and a Stanford University study on lottery winners, each cited by Reuters. While some lottery winners are wise enough to hire reputable lawyers and financial advisors, others do not, and find themselves facing demands they are not equipped to handle.
According to the Missouri Lottery, 97 percent of jackpot winners say that the experience is a “very positive” one. Even accepting that statistic at face value means that, for 3 percent of winners, the hassles of winning, including having their names released to the media, outweigh the benefits of being handed thousands or millions of dollars. And despite advertising campaigns that urge players to dream big, we can assume that the percentage of less-than- positive outcomes is higher than 3 percent among those with the largest prizes.