$1 billion Mega Millions winners burned breakfast, then called a lottery lawyer

What’s the first thing you do if you win the lottery? For the winners of the billion dollar Mega Millions jackpot, it was burn breakfast, and then call a lottery lawyer. That lawyer, Kurt Panouses, established a new club name for his clients, Wolverine FLL, and accepted the prize on their behalf from Michigan Lottery officials March 12. He shared a few vague tidbits on the winners, while expounding more on the advice he gives them and others who have newfound wealth of mind-boggling proportions. The winners are “really good friends who are probably best friends now.” They are between the ages of 45 and 65. They would be better described as all being from southeast Michigan rather than Oakland County. They have “educational backgrounds” but Panouses would neither confirm nor deny that they are educators as was previously speculated.

They are fans of the University of Michigan, hence the club name under which their prize was claimed the “Wolverine FLL Club” although the Spartans cheer “Go Green” might seem more fitting after they raked in $557 million after taxes. One member of the group stopped at the Kroger store at 47650 Grand River while “passing through Novi,” after realizing the friends had not yet bought a ticket for the $1.05 billion Mega Millions. This person selected multiple easy picks and continued home.

The winning numbers, 4-26-42-50-60 and Mega Ball 24 were drawn on Jan. 22, but it wasn’t until the following morning that a new life literally dawned on them. It began with a phone call from one of the friends to the ticket holder, who was making bacon and that the winning ticket was bought at the Novi Kroger.

The holder began looking down all the quick picks to match the first three numbers, Panouses said, and upon finding them, reread them multiple times before letting the eyes slide over to see that the next three numbers in the row completed the winning set of numbers. “You see all six numbers, and then you hand it to someone else, and then you realize, ‘It’s us,’” Panouses said. “It’s Saturday morning and you forget about the bacon burning. The bacon got thrown out; there’s new bacon in the house.” The winners contacted Panouses, a Florida-based estate and tax attorney who gained national renown as a lottery lawyer, advising them on various aspects of wealth as they take on millionaire status. “To get a phone call from a group that won a billion within 12 hours of their win is a remarkable point of my career,” Panouses admitted. “This group did their own research and engaged to assist in this process.” In Michigan, lottery winners purportedly are not allowed anonymity, but Panouses found “some gray area,” and successfully claimed the prize in the form of the club name, keeping the winners identities private “so they can live their lives.” “It’s scary to come into this kind of wealth,” Panouses said. “I will be everyone’s shield; that is what I do, I am their shield. I will help this group and give them some privacy so they can live with peace and happiness. You don’t want them to come into this wealth and have a negative feeling.”

Tips for the newly rich Among the advice Panouses gives to most lottery winners, including his newest clients: Keep it secret, keep it safe. It seems obvious you want a very tight circle to know of your newfound wealth. You also want to protect that tiny slip of incredibly fragile, valuable paper your winning numbers are printed on until the ticket is officially cashed in. Panouses only told his wife that he knew who the latest billion dollar winners were. No one in his office knew, nor anyone else until he was flying to Detroit two weeks ago to take possession of the ticket and transport it to the lottery office to make things official. That lottery ticket was not in a safe deposit box, the advice he gives to clients and which most of them ignore. “Most people don’t trust the bank and hide the ticket somewhere in their house,” Panouses said. “The place in their house where they think it is safe — I absolutely cringe.” More:As world marks one year of pandemic, we ask how has COVID-19 changed your life? He’s had clients wrap it up and put the ticket in the freezer, and another who bought a vault from Office Depot and drilled it into the concrete floor with the ticket already inside in an envelope. “He was drilling into hot concrete. It could have caught on fire,” Panouses said, horrified. Take the prize in a lump sum. He notes that winners don’t know where they will be in 25 years. If they’re older, it could be six feet under. The tax rate could also change, perhaps for the worse.

He said in the 1960s and 1970s, individuals earning over $400,000 per year, were taxed in the highest bracket, paying as much as 92 percent on their income. Retire. While many people dream of quitting their jobs if they won the lottery, in Panouses’ experience, the reality is that new millionaires often say they want to keep working. He tells them when they look at their bank account and it shows $10 million or $100 million, the last thing they will want to do is work. Even if they love their job, he said, they will feel frustration or guilt, taking a job from someone who needs it. In the current pandemic, he said winners could easily take a leave of absence and blame it on COVID. He said two of the Michigan winners have already retired and the other two are close. Don’t make drastic changes right away. While Panouses supports a fast retirement for lottery winners and perhaps a new car or a vacation to get away, he tells them to pause any major purchases or massive life changes for six months. “When I get clients like this, I tell them to let the emotional roller coaster come to a halt before you get off,” he said. “This can be very draining on everyone. Be normal people for awhile, let’s get the money invested and know what you can spend and put things in perspective.” Invest and give wisely, think ahead. The new winners each have millions, and they want to keep it and grow it, unlike the client Panouses had that blew through their first annual installment of $600,000 in less than two months and were broke until their next payout.

Clients need to protect their assets, as well, from scammers or lawsuits. Car insurance for winners’ children should not be in the parents’ names, for example. He estimates the Michigan Mega Millions winners can invest that money and generate $16 million per year risk-free at 3.5 percent interest, meaning $4 million income per year for each of the four individuals, without a decline in the original balance. Panouses will also guide the new winners, who he said are very charity-minded, in how to share their wealth for maximum effect. “These are good people. They all have concern for education and their communities,” Panouses said. “We need to do things anonymously, but will set up a charitable organization and we’re going to do a bunch of things. Scholarships are important to them and educating people who can’t afford to go to college. They all want to make their communities better.”


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