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As Mega Millions hits $1 billion, winning doesn’t mean a happy ending

From buying a private island to helping their communities, Mega Millions players in Brooklyn share what they would do with a billion-dollar-plus jackpot. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
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Who will win the $1 billion Mega Millions jackpot?

It’s one of the biggest questions in America after a winning ticket with all six numbers was not sold for Tuesday night’s $830 million drawing, increasing the next jackpot Friday to an estimated $1.025 billion, the third-highest total in the game’s history. The Friday jackpot has an estimated cash payout of $602.5 million, according to Mega Millions, after 29 consecutive draws have come and gone without a winner matching all six numbers since April 15. The nationwide interest surrounding the 10-figure jackpot even crashed Mega Millions’ website for more than two hours Tuesday night.

“We look with anticipation on the growing jackpot,” Ohio Lottery Director Pat McDonald, the current lead director of the Mega Millions consortium, said in a Wednesday news release. “Seeing the jackpot build over a period of months and reaching the billion-dollar mark is truly breathtaking. We encourage customers to keep play in balance and enjoy the ride.”

McDonald added, “Someone is going to win.”

But as players rush to pick up their Mega Millions tickets and dream big — the odds of matching all six numbers are roughly 1 in 303 million — another popular question is again front and center for those already making unrealistic plans for their hypothetical $1 billion victory: What would you do if you won the lottery?

A history of past lottery winners shows a wide range of what players do with their winnings. Many have paid off debts, bought homes and invested their money, while others have put the cash toward building a water park, gambling in Atlantic City or starting a women’s professional wrestling organization. Some adjusted to life as a multimillionaire. Others say the joy and thrill that came from the unexpected sudden wealth soon turned to bad choices and sadness — and ruined their lives.

“When you immediately realize you’ve won, you’re filled with excitement. You’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is amazing, my life is going to change,’ ” said Robert Pagliarini, who is president of California-based Pacifica Wealth Advisors, and has worked with lottery winners. “That’s immediately followed by anxiety and fear — ‘Oh, my gosh, what am I doing? How will I handle this? My life may change and maybe not in a good way.’ ”

Friday’s jackpot is just shy of last year’s $1.05 billion Mega Millions jackpot, won by a single ticket shared by four members of a suburban Detroit lottery club. If no winning ticket is selected Friday, the Mega Millions jackpot will inch closer to the record $1.5 billion prize that a South Carolina player won in 2018. The player, who also chose to remain anonymous, opted for the lump sum of more than $877 million, according to the South Carolina Education Lottery Commission.

Millions of players are expected to buy $2 tickets for this week’s Mega Millions, which is played in 45 states plus Washington and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There were more than 6.7 million winning tickets at all levels for Tuesday’s drawing, according to Mega Millions, including nine tickets with winnings ranging from $1 million to $3 million each.

With the increased interest in the $1 billion jackpot and the spike in tickets sold, it will become more likely that one person, or multiple people, will have a winning ticket after Friday’s drawing, said Mark Glickman, a senior lecturer on statistics at Harvard University.

“The big difference is when these jackpots get to be larger and larger, more people will play, so there’s more of a chance someone is going to win,” Glickman said. “But that’s not to say any individual person will have an improved chance. Once the pot gets up to this range, there are enough people playing that odds are someone is going to pick the right number.”

When players have picked the right lottery numbers, mostly all of them pay off their debts or look to buy homes for themselves or their loved ones, Pagliarini said. He recalled one client of his splurging on a new home in the Malibu area that overlooked the Pacific Ocean.

Some have celebrated their wealth through investments and nontraditional purchases or donations. In 2011, John Kutey and his wife, Linda, used some of his $28.7 million share from the winning Mega Millions ticket of $319 million he bought with co-workers to put toward building a water park in Green Island, N.Y., in honor of their parents, according to the Albany Times Union. Louise White won a Powerball jackpot in Rhode Island of more than $336 million after she had purchased a rainbow sherbet in 2012, and started a trust for her family named after the dessert, “The Rainbow Sherbet Trust,” ABC News reported.

Just this month, Crystal Dunn took her smaller winnings of more than $146,000 from a Kentucky Lottery online game and gave some of it away to strangers in the form of $100 grocery store gift cards.

She won the lottery. Then she shared her windfall with strangers.

But for every feel-good story of unlikely lottery triumph, there are other experiences that highlight why it matters to have a financial adviser and attorney ready to help if someone does win the big one, Pagliarini said.

“There are so many stories of these lottery winners who end up with less money than when they started,” he said. “The big question, and fear, is, ‘Am I going to blow it all?’ And they still just might blow it all.”

After Evelyn Adams improbably won the New Jersey Lottery in both 1985 and 1986, winning more than $5.4 million total, her winnings were completely spent by 2012 because of gambling in Atlantic City and investment mistakes, according to Forbes. South Carolina native Jonathan Vargas, who was just 19 when he won a $35.3 million Powerball prize in 2008, put his winnings toward Wrestlicious, a women’s professional wrestling promotion that he founded. The show, which featured scantily clad performers who also did sketch comedy, lasted just one season and cost Vargas almost $500,000, according to CBS News.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would recommend people just sit on it for a year,” he said in 2016. “Really decide what they want to do with it.”

While stories of lottery luck have been well documented over the years, the endings to those tales have varied.

He won Powerball’s $314 million jackpot. It ruined his life.

Not long after William “Bud” Post won a Pennsylvania Lottery jackpot of $16.2 million in 1988, his brother was arrested for hiring a hit man to kill him for the inheritance. Post was later successfully sued by an ex-girlfriend for a share of the winnings, and was $1 million in debt by the time he died in 2006.

“Everybody dreams of winning money, but nobody realizes the nightmares that come out of the woodwork, or the problems,” he said in 1993.

In the case of Ronnie Music Jr., the $3 million that he won from a Georgia Lottery scratch-off game in 2015 was put toward purchasing and distributing crystal meth. He pleaded guilty in 2016 to investing in a drug ring and was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

Despite the unlikelihood of winning this week’s $1 billion jackpot, and the history connected to some winners who have cashed in, it isn’t stopping people from wondering “what if?” Pagliarini is planning on going to the store to get two tickets for him and his daughter, while Glickman, the Harvard professor, will keep using his strategy of picking Mega Millions numbers entirely at random.

If he were to win, Glickman said he’d like to buy a vacation home in La Jolla, Calif., where he just returned from vacation. But Glickman is honest in recognizing his history of playing the game means that he, like millions of others, will have to hold off on those lottery dreams a bit longer.

“When I played last week, I had one ticket that I think cashed in at $10 — and that’s the most I’ve ever won,” he said. “I go into this knowing full well that luck will not shine on me.”

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