Dear Penny: Do I Get My Ex’s Lottery Money if We’re Still Legally Married?

A woman uses a vacuum to take money from a man.
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Dear Penny,

I left my husband in 1990. We were in a bitter custody battle for two years before I left. I was awarded sole custody. He had visitation rights, which he never used. Long story short, he never saw our children from the time I left him.

He was on Social Security Disability, which meant the children received money from Social Security. He had to pay child support, which he was behind on for several years. Child support enforcement was very new at that time in my state, so trying to get them to go after him became a nightmare.

My attorney at the time had the support order changed so it came directly from his SSD check. For me, it was the end of a nightmare of endless court battles. We never got divorced. There was no reason other than I was mentally drained with him trying to financially ruin me.

I raised three wonderful sons. Recently, my oldest son informed me that he was told my ex won a substantial amount of money in our state lottery.

As I mentioned we are still married legally, so I know I am entitled to a portion of that money. How would I go about finding out how much he won and if he claimed it himself or had someone else do it?

I should also mention he cut off the family’s health insurance that he was ordered to pay until the youngest child turned 21, which caused me financial strain. At the time, I was paying $650 a month for a family plan in 2004. Child support also ended at that time. He was supposed to pay for insurance for three more years.

My sons want nothing to do with him and don’t want me to pursue this. I’m torn on whether to proceed or not. 

-Separated for 30 Years

Dear Separated,

You can check your state’s lottery website to see if your estranged husband is listed among the winners. Even if he didn’t accept a giant check at a news conference, his name may be listed in accordance with your state’s open records laws.

But it’s also getting easier to keep your name private when you win the jackpot. Eleven states — Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — now allow lottery winners to stay anonymous.

The other 39 states require that winners’ names become part of the public record, at least in theory. What that means is that even if the state doesn’t display the names of all winners on its lottery website, you should be able to ask the state’s lottery for the names of winners.

But in practice, these records are often ridiculously difficult for the public to obtain. A team of six journalists from the Columbia Journalism Review made 100 public records requests to state lotteries and found that many ignored or declined the requests, redacted information, or claimed the request would result in exorbitant fees. Also, winners can often avoid making their names public by setting up a trust or an anonymous LLC.

That was my long-winded way of saying: Just because you don’t find evidence that your ex won the lottery doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I’m curious about the person who told your son of your ex’s winnings. Was it someone your son trusts who would actually be privy to this information? Or did this news come from a friend of a friend’s second cousin twice removed? I get that your sons don’t want you going after this money. But convincing your eldest to get a few more details from the source may be the easiest starting point.

It would certainly make for poetic justice if your husband had to split his lottery winnings with you. Unfortunately, though, you shouldn’t assume that you’ll be entitled to your husband’s money — that is, if it actually exists.

The laws for assets acquired after a couple has separated vary by state. Many states treat property one spouse acquires after a permanent separation as belonging solely to them. Talk to an attorney in your state. Your attorney may be able to help you figure out whether your husband actually won. If he did win, your attorney can tell you whether you have a legitimate claim.

Obviously, you can expect a nasty fight if you proceed. But I think it’s worth pursuing if this money exists and your attorney thinks you have a reasonable shot at getting part of it. You deserve to be made financially whole after all these years.

Even if this turns out to be a rumor, consider finalizing your divorce already. Walking away with your ex’s lotto money would certainly be a sweet parting gift. But even if there is no money, it’s time to sever your ties with this guy after 30 years.

Does your balance sheet need a reset? Try these 7 ways to organize your finances in seven days.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].

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