Winning the lottery is actually a relatively common event. Granted, your chances of landing one of the highly publicized multi-million-dollar jackpots are pretty slim. However, the smaller prizes, typically ranging from a few bucks to hundreds of thousands of dollars, don't make the local news. If you win one of these smaller prizes, it isn’t likely to be a life-changing event. You might be able to go on a nice vacation or fatten up your savings account. Whether the prize is large or small, the steps you follow to claim lottery money are similar.
Sign the lottery ticket right now. A lottery ticket is a bearer document. This means that as long as the ticket is not signed, anyone can cash it in. If you misplace an unsigned ticket and someone else gets his hands on it, he can legally sign it and claim your prize money.
Contact the state lottery commission. Each state sets up its own rules for claiming lottery money. You can look on the commission website for contact information so you can find out how to pick up your winnings. Typically, you can collect small amounts at any lottery commission office or sometimes at the retail outlet where you bought the ticket. For example, in Florida you can collect up to $600 at any retail lottery location. Tickets for larger prizes must be presented at a lottery commission district office or the state lottery headquarters.
Decide how you want to be paid if the prize is a big one. Large jackpots usually come with the option of receiving annual payments for several years or taking a single lump-sum payout. Which is best will depend on your own situation. If you aren’t sure how to handle large sums of money, consider seeking advice from a lawyer or qualified financial adviser.
Present your winning ticket at the authorized lottery payment location. You will probably have to fill out a claim form. Bring your driver’s license or another valid government ID and your Social Security card. If you don’t have one of these documents, ask the state lottery commission about substitute forms of identification. Small prizes are often paid on the spot, but you may have to wait a few days for a big payout to be processed. In Georgia, you'll have to wait 3 to 5 business days to pick up winnings of $500,000 or more.
Report your lottery winnings on your tax return at year’s end. The Internal Revenue Service designates lottery money as taxable income, so you must report it on the return that covers the year you received it. The lottery commission will send you a form W2-G to document the amount. If the lottery money is to be paid out as an annuity, report only the amount you receive each year.
Forbes, a leading financial publication, points out that winning a really big lottery jackpot will bring a lot of changes, and you need time to adjust. Wait six months or so before making any big life changes. Take the time to learn something about managing large amounts of money and put together a team of reputable and qualified legal financial advisers. Watch out for hard-luck stories, relatives you never heard of and similar efforts to separate you from your new wealth.
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