Office Lotto Pool Disputes Shaping a New Area of Law

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 30, 2012

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Lottery MoneyOffices everywhere were abuzz this week as groups of co-workers pooled their lottery money together to purchase a large number of tickets and increase their chances of winning the $585 million Powerball. Of course, even the largest office pools offer very little chance of winning, but the practice has become so commonplace that it seems hard to find a workplace where coworkers do not pool their money together and spend the entire day leading up to the lottery talking about how great it will be to be rich, and how funny it will be when their department simultaneously quits.

What very few office pools talk about is how to prevent messy and costly litigation should they actually win. As a result, there have been a rising number of legal disputes following lotteries in which courts are asked to settle what pool of money purchased the winning ticket, and who is entitled to share in the spoils of fortune. Lottery winners in office pools risk spending a considerable portion of their winnings on legal fees because they did not take some simple steps prior to the drawing to ensure that everyone was clear about what tickets were purchased with the pooled money.

Recent Office Lotto Pool Legal Drama

In March of 2012, two examples of office lotto pool drama hit the national news. The first more quietly in the form of a New Jersey legal decision in which a man was ordered to share his $38.5 million winnings with coworkers who alleged the ticket was purchased with shared funds. Although Americo Lopes insisted that he purchased the ticket on his own, a judge found that there was sufficient evidence to suggest otherwise and forced him to split his winnings with coworkers.

The second incident was much more notable for a number of reasons, the primary being that at stake was a share of the $656 million Mega Millions Jackpot. To refresh: a Maryland woman employed at a Baltimore area McDonalds came forward and declared herself the lotto’s big winner after the March 30th drawing. Mirlande Wilson admitted that she had been in charge of the employee pool money and had purchased tickets for everyone in preparation for the big lottery drawing. She was quick to point out, however, that the ticket that contained the winner was purchased with her own money, separate from the pool.

Predictably, this did not go over well with her coworkers who briefly saw their ship come in, only to watch it go directly back out again. When they challenged her story and demanded their share of the winning prize, Ms. Wilson claimed that she lost the ticket, and neither she nor her coworkers were newly rich. Shortly after the incident, a small group came forward with the winning ticket, but the drama was not quite over. In October, Ms. Wilson’s former coworkers sued her, claiming that she had sold the winning ticket to a smaller group in order to avoid a large scale split of the winnings.

“Lotto Lawyers” Ready for Office Pool Disputes

Never ones to sit on the sidelines when millions of dollars are at stake, attorneys have begun specializing in lottery disputes among coworkers or other groups pooling money for tickets. These “lotto lawyers” probably do not get enough work to focus an entire practice on, but as more cases about lottery disputes lead to specific and distinct case law tailored to fit that type of issue, there are attorneys who will become familiar with how a court will approach multiple claims to a winning lottery ticket. 

University of Louisville law professor, Russ Weaver, provided some useful advice in a recent interview about the rising need for attorneys who understand lottery related case law. Weaver advises members of office pools to take a few simple steps before the lotto drawing:  Make photocopies of the group lottery tickets and distribute them to members before the drawing so there’s clear proof which tickets belong to the group and which belong to individuals. Such an easy task will go a long way in preventing a legal challenge to lottery winnings, or, if not, provide evidence that a court can use to make a clear decision.

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