Do I Have to File a Tax Return if I Win the Lotto?

by Tara Thomas ; Updated March 15, 2018
Lottery winners still have to pay Uncle Sam.

While many dream of hitting those winning lotto numbers and changing their lives forever, few are adequately prepared for everything that comes with such a windfall. Even if you don't win big, the question "If I win the lotto, do I have to file a tax return?" inevitably arises. The IRS is rather clear when it comes to declaring gambling winnings and losses, but the process can seem a bit complicated nonetheless. Hiring a tax adviser or preparer who is familiar with lottery filings will prove invaluable, and the IRS has an Interactive Tax Assistant tool on its website to help you as well.

How Much You Need to Win Before Having to File Taxes

Although lottery winnings over $5,000 are generally subject to automatic federal and possibly state withholding, you must list all winnings (regardless of amount) on your tax return. These winnings are considered income for tax purposes, and you are required to declare any winnings when filing taxes – even if they are not automatically withheld. Because lottery winnings are taxable income, at the very least you can expect to be taxed at the federal level. You may also be taxed at both state and local level, too. Some states levy a flat percentage tax, while others tax you depending on the amount you won. Ten states including California, Florida and New Hampshire do not tax lottery winnings at all. Check with your state tax board for more information on whether you can expect to be taxed on your lottery earnings beyond the federal level.

Filing the Right Forms

When you win the lottery, you have to claim these winnings on Form 1040 as “Other Income” on line 21. Payers will also issue you a Form W-2G – Certain Gambling Winnings – for your lottery earnings. This is where a tax professional experienced in assisting lottery winners will come in handy. They can help you navigate the ins and outs of this often confusing tax process if you've never filed this type of tax return before. You do need to keep in mind, however, that the IRS does not have a straight 25 percent tax on lottery winnings, as is often rumored. Because your winnings are taxed as earnings, lotto winnings can be taxed up to the highest bracket, which at time of publication, is 39.6 percent. Single filers will reach this bracket at $418,400 or higher in winnings, and married couples who file jointly will find themselves in this bracket at $470,700 and higher in lottery earnings for tax year 2017.

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Lump Sum vs. Annuity Payments

Since 2003, only four lottery winners of large jackpots have chosen to accept annuity (annual) payments for their winnings instead of taking the money all at once. There are pros and cons to both options. Taking your money in a lump sum will inevitably equate to a much higher tax hit than annual payments, but both options will invariably land you in a higher tax bracket. Because your winnings are considered earnings for tax purposes, a $300 million jackpot, for instance, would be treated as if you earned that much in a single tax year – and you'd be taxed accordingly.

Annual payments allow for the taxation of your earnings to be spread out over the lifetime of your payout, which means you would pay less than if were you taxed on the full amount of your winnings all at once. While annual payments allow you time to make wise investment choices and afford you some security, most large jackpot winners opt for the lump sump and subsequent tax hit.

About the Author

Tara Thomas has been a writer and traveler since 1997. Her articles appear in various online publications. She also has experience authoring grant proposals for a Southern California marine science laboratory, which helped her develop a lifelong interest in environmentalism. Thomas is an event planner, has a Bachelor of Science in marine biology from California State University, Long Beach, and worked as a mortgage consultant since 1998.

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