More and more players of Washington's instant lottery, in the hope of bettering their chances of winning, are joining with family and friends to buy blocks of tickets with an agreement that all the winnings will be shared, lottery officials say.
But these instant cooperatives are likely to produce family feuds, strained friendships and a host of tax-related entanglements, the officials say, due to thorny questions of legal ownership and tax liability.
Moreover, the practice of buying tickets in blocks does not improve a person's chances of beating the lottery's 9-to-1 odds.
"There is no system," says D.C. Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board spokesman Alex Exum. "It's a game of pure chance. That's what makes it exciting."
Three federal employes on Capitol Hill don't believe that. After a week's planning, Tom Murphy, George Gribar and Edward Lee decided last Friday to pool their money and buy 400 tickets in the hope of getting at least one $100 winning ticket -- which would make them eligible for the $1 million grand prize drawing.
"And that was the whole point," said Lee, who devised the plan.
After they bought the tickets, they had lunch together at the Twin Bridge Marriott in Arlington "to get the vibes right," Lee said. Then the three went to Murphy's apartment to scratch the silvery coating off the tickets and see what they had won.
After more than two hours, Lee said, the men found themselves with 50 winning tickets: 45 for $2, two for $5, 2 for $10, and, yes, one $100 ticket: a grand total of $220, but the chance, as Murphy explained, to win $1 million for the bargain-basement net investment -- after dividing their winnings -- of only $60 per man.
"That's what excited us," Lee said.
Yesterday, however, the excitement dissipated as they were told that the $100 ticket, their shot at the big money, would only be issued in the name of one of the three. And if that person won, he alone would be entitled to collect the $1 million, which is to be doled out at an annual $50,000 over 20 years.
"For that kind of money there have been a lot of divorces in this country," said Murphy, in whose name the ticket was finally entered in the drawing.
According to the lottery's acting financial manager, George Thomas, the three men would, if they win the grand prize, run into a maze of "wild, ridiculous" tax questions involving long-term, complex record-keeping for the Internal Revenue Service.
"What if one of them dies? What if one of them gets married, gets divorced, has children?" asks Thomas.
The gaming board's lottery committee would have considered the question of what to do with more than one winner on the same ticket yesterday, if it hadn't bogged down on the issue of how and when to hold the lottery's first $1 million drawing.
The committee was prompted to take up the matter because more than 9.47 million of the first 10 million tickets already have been sold to D.C. vendors, the committee reported.
When the game began two weeks ago, organizers promised that a drawing among all $100 winners would be scheduled 30 days after all 10 million tickets were sold. However, ticket sales have far exceeded expectations, committee member Jerry Cooper said. The board has decided to add another 10 million tickets to the game soon, and will have to grapple with how to hold the drawing without changing the ticket holders' odds of winning.
The board is slated to take up those issues today in a regularly scheduled meeting.
No immediate resolution is in sight, however, for the question about winning tickets by multiple owners. That item probably will not be on the board's agenda today, nor until it is first considered by the committee.
"The board doesn't have a policy on this," board spokesman Exum said. Meanwhile, "we are only going to honor the person's name written on the back of the winning ticket. We don't have any control on the agreement the ticket owners have between themselves."
For example, a jointly owned $10,000 winning ticket was cashed in yesterday by Laurie Kroll, a secretary, and her boss, who declined to be identified. They had decided to split the proceeds evenly. No problem.
But then confusion set in. How do they inform the IRS that the $2,000 federal tax taken directly from the lottery prize is to be credited to both of them? Moreover, how do the two, considering their differing financial profiles, divide the money evenly in view of the graduated federal tax scale that treats the secretary one way and her boss another? Should they set up a legal partnership? Incorporate?
IRS spokesman Don LaPonzina said he sees problems with keeping it all straight. And, "in an audit situation, how are these people going to show where the money went? There won't be a trail for us to follow," he said.
"I see a lot of friendships ending that way."