Richard Zelasko shows his winning Mega Millions ticket in a 2013 photo. (Michigan Lottery/Michigan Lottery)

How much credit can a person take for good luck? That was the question at the center of a high-stakes divorce case that came before a Michigan appeals court last week.

A three-judge panel ruled June 13 that Richard Zelasko must share the $80 million lottery jackpot he won while going through a divorce with his now-ex-wife, Mary Zelasko. The court upheld the decision of an arbitrator who reasoned that because the couple had shared past losses, the aptly named Rich — by his own account a longtime gambler — should share the fruits of his good fortune.

But his attorney, in a court filing cited by the Associated Press, argued that the credit was his alone.

“Rich was lucky,” attorney Scott Bassett said, “but it was his luck, not Mary’s, that produced the lottery proceeds.”

The couple had been married seven years when they both filed for divorce in 2011, but the divorce wasn’t final until 2018, the AP reported. When Richard Zelasko bought the winning ticket in 2013, they were living separately while the arbitrator worked out the details of their split, including child support payments and custody of their three children.

After taxes and deductions, the winnings totaled $38,873,628, according the court filing.

Months after Richard Zelasko had his big win, the arbitrator noted that he had not paid child support. The court also noted that in the years they had been together, Mary had earned roughly three times as much from her job as Richard did from the business he ran, a T-shirt shop according to Bassett’s oral arguments.

More than a month passed before Richard Zelasko realized he had hit the jackpot. In a winner’s profile on the Mega Millions website, he said he had left the winning ticket in his wallet while going on a vacation and a few golfing trips.

“That would have been a terrible time to lose your wallet,” the website quoted him as saying.

He said he had played the lottery for years and liked trying his luck on roulette at the casino, and despite the windfall said he intended to keep playing the lottery.

After filing for divorce, the couple agreed to appoint arbitrator John Mills “to decide all contested issues,” according to the court filing. But Mills died in 2014, after deciding that the lottery winnings were part of the marital estate but before the arbitration process was complete.

“As losses throughout the marriage were shared jointly,” Mills said per the court filing, “so should winnings be shared jointly.”

Richard Zelasko asked the court to vacate Mills’s decision, arguing that the arbitrator was biased against him and that “death was the ultimate disqualification,” as Bassett said in oral arguments.

The appeals court ultimately decided the case on the narrower question of whether Mills had made a legal error, ruling that his decision should stand. In a statement to People, Bassett said that his client had already filed a motion asking the court to reconsider its decision and that if the motion were denied, they would appeal the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.

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