TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

Editorials

July 11, 2012

Life Lessons from the Lottery: People who are separated but not divorced

CORBIN — My wife walked into a gas station and said she was buying a lottery ticket. I told her the odds were 176,000,000 to one.  She said that if she won, she would keep the money to herself. I explained that if she won, half of the jackpot is mine.

A winning lottery ticket purchased during the marriage is a marital asset to be split equitably. Not everyone knows that.

One of the first lottery winners I got to know was the divorcing spouse of a guy who won the lottery. The divorce should have been final months earlier but he was stalling it out while arguing a minor point about child support. I’m not sure if he got his way about the child support. I do know that she got several million dollars instead.  

I’m writing a new book called, “Life Lessons from the Lottery.” The theme is that lottery winners have the same financial and social issues that other people have. Only their problems are magnified 1,000 percent.

For those of us who follow the trials and tribulations of lottery winners, seeing one member of a separated, but not yet divorced, couple hit the lottery has happened more than once. This makes me think there are a lot of separated but undivorced couples all over America. Various census statistics say that two to three percent of Americans (roughly six or seven million people) are separated but don’t have their divorces final. One of them was my late sister. She fell down a flight of stairs and died at age 46, leaving a minor child and an adult child. She also left a husband that we did not know about. She had been married to this man for several years, and her younger child was his. However, she had told us she had divorced him several years earlier. They didn’t live together and, for most of that time, she lived in California and he lived in Cincinnati. He came to her funeral, (a funeral I arranged and paid for), and though he said “Hello,” we didn’t really talk. Two days later, he had a lawyer file papers asking that he be named as administrator of her estate. After exhaustive research, it turned out my sister and her husband never filed for divorce. Thus, under Kentucky law, her husband was entitled to half of her estate. My nephew and niece would split the other half. It was not a lot of money, but the fight caused a riff that never healed.

My sister died shortly after my mother’s death. Neither had wills and I suspect my sister’s spouse would have elected against a will anyway. A finalized divorce is the only thing that would have protected her assets against his claims. This, we thought, had happened.

My sister was a great example of how living separated but still married can blow up from a financial standpoint. But an excellent 2010 New York Times article, “The Un-Divorced” argues the opposite point. People frequently live apart but stay married for financial reasons. It will be interesting to see if the most common reason, staying on a spouse’s health insurance and employee benefit plan, will change once “Obamacare” is completely implemented. The Times article noted one of the most famous “separated but divorced” couples, billionaire Warren Buffett and his late wife, Susan. They separated in 1977 and stayed that way until Susan’s death in 2004. But they never divorced. Although Susan often made public appearances with Warren, he lived with another woman, whom he married after Susan’s death. I’m confident that someone as financially savvy as Warren Buffett had thought through the financial ramifications of his situation. But the average person often does not — just like the average lottery player does not think about how being married but living separately will impact his or her situation.

Holly Lahti, of Idaho, won $190 million in the Mega Million’s jackpot in 2011. She zealously attempted to protect her privacy but wound up making headlines because she was in the “separated but married” category. Her husband, an ex-con with over a dozen arrests on his record, came looking for his part of the loot. His first reaction was “I won’t have to pay child support.” And, according to a document obtained by RaderOnline.doc, that is exactly what happened. Holly waived child and medical support for the children. It doesn’t say what she received in return.

Few people will ever win the lottery, but financial issues and dilemmas face every married person who is living separately but not divorced.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is the bestselling author of the books, “Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers” and “What to Do When You Win the Lottery” and “Wealth Without Wall Street;” McNay, who lives in Richmond, Ky., is an award-winning financial columnist and Huffington Post contributor. You can learn more about him at www.don mcnay.com.

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