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5 Things to Do If You Receive a Windfall

Geoff Williams

It isn't likely that you will become fabulously wealthy overnight, but it can happen. You could learn of a rich uncle who left you a fortune in his will. The lottery gods may bless you. You might be really good at March Madness picks and win $1 billion promised by Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans for correctly guessing the winners of 67 basketball games.

So just for kicks, and for the few readers who find themselves in this position, what should you do if you suddenly, practically overnight, become fantastically rich beyond your wildest imagination?

If you can help it, tell almost no one. You may not be able to prevent everyone from finding out. A will becomes a public document. If you win a gazillion dollars after a successful lawsuit, it won't exactly be a secret; the press will likely have been reporting on your every move. In most states, if you win a lottery, you must agree to have your name released to the public, which helps their marketing cause but not necessarily yours.

But if you can, keep your mouth shut, advises Sally Mulhern, an estate planning attorney in Portsmouth, N.H.

[See: 12 Money Mistakes Almost Everyone Makes.]

She says she had a client who won $2 million in a lottery and never told anyone other than his wife. "Not his parents, children, co-workers, friends or anyone else. He told me it's difficult, but definitely worth it," Mulhern says.

Why the secrecy? For the obvious reasons: "Those friends you haven't seen in years are not your real friends," Mulhern says.

And you may even have enemies. Nearly two years after the fact, the murder of Urooj Khan is still unsolved. Khan was an Indian immigrant and Chicago resident who owned three dry-cleaning shops and five condominiums and won $1 million in June 2012 in the Illinois lottery.

Khan apparently told everyone of his windfall; he was so happy when he won his scratch-off ticket that, according to media reports, he tipped the clerk $100. He was poisoned by cyanide in July 2012, one day after he received a check for $424,449, the amount left over after he selected a one-time payment, minus taxes.

For as long as possible, do nothing. That is, don't spend unusually large amounts of money. The last thing you want to do is blunder into an expensive purchase you can't return and will soon regret. According to Dan White, a Philadelphia-area financial planner, "Many people move too quickly, acting on impulse and not giving themselves the time to think."

He says some of the issues you'll need to think about include your current debt, your plans for retirement and what you want to do about taxes. This is the time, in any case, to process what has just happened to you.

Hire a good team. While you're doing nothing, here's something you can do. "Surround yourself immediately with expert, trustworthy advisors," Mulhern says. "This includes an estate planning attorney, but perhaps more important, a tax accountant."

Mulhern stresses this point because she says she had a client who won $70 million in a lottery, but because his income in previous years hadn't been high enough to require him to file, he didn't report his taxes.

"Before meeting with us, [he] got into trouble with the IRS," Mulhern says.

[See: Tax Tips: The Good, Bad and Ugly (But Legal).]

There are other reasons to hire a tax accountant besides staying in good graces with the IRS, although that's an excellent one. Lawrence Pon, a certified public accountant in Redwood City, Calif., who has been doing clients' taxes for 28 years, says talking to a tax advisor first can help you avoid mistakes like bad investments or overspending. For instance, Pon says, "some inheritances are set up so they aren't paid until a certain age or conditions are met." He adds that he once saw a trust that indicated the child would be disinherited if he didn't pass a drug test.

In other words, if you go from having no money to a lot of it, you're going to come in contact with a lot of issues you probably aren't familiar with. Yes, you'll spend money hiring an estate planning attorney, accountant, financial advisor, tax advisor and whomever else you decide to bring aboard, but if they save you thousands or millions in the long run, it will be money well-spent. And, of course, if you're worth millions and everyone knows it, you may want to hire a security firm - at least for a while. Your newfound attorney, accountant or financial advisor or should be able to point you to a local firm that specializes in protecting high-net-worth clients.

Be careful in your dealings with friends and family. If everyone knows you're now worth - let's dream big - $100 million because you've won the Powerball Mega Millions jackpot, and your name and face have been splashed on virtually every newspaper and website, it's inevitable that family and friends are going to hit you up for a loan.

You'll have to come up with your own approach, but if someone is asking you for big money, "approach it like you'd approach any other business opportunity," advises Jim Flanagan, a financial advisor and founder of Bentron Financial Group, Inc., in Naperville, Ill. He suggests: "Establish criteria, such as their need to submit a résumé, a business plan and business projections. These are things that are asked for in any business relationship. If the family member or friend is really serious and has their act together, they'll come up with all that stuff. But if they're just blowing smoke, that will become clear pretty quickly."

Another way to look at this approach, Flanagan says, is that if people are always hitting you up for money, "now you are [like] a bank, so you have to think like a banker."

If you're not comfortable saying no or asking for a business plan, Mulhern has an idea: "Have all requests for junkets and loans go through your attorney. You'll be amazed at how few requests you'll receive."

Don't lose your head. That is, do all or at least some of the above. Try to keep your newfound wealth quiet, get financial advice and ease into your wealth. Stay as grounded and safe as possible. Because while money may buy you happiness, it does not guarantee happiness.

Just as you have seen stories in the press of overnight millionaires on their way up, you're likely familiar with the same people on their way down.

[See: 10 Saving Strategies That Can Backfire.]

There are numerous rags-to-riches-to-rags stories out there, such as the one of William "Bud" Post III, who won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery in 1988 and had anything but a happy ending. His girlfriend sued him for a portion of the lottery winnings, and a judge agreed with her. His brother, hoping to inherit some of the money, unsuccessfully hired a hit man to kill him. Businesses he started and heavily invested in failed. By the end of his life in 2006, when he was 66, bankrupt and ill, Post owed more than a million dollars. According to the Los Angeles Times, he once called his winnings "the lottery of death."

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