This story is perhaps the most dramatic emotional roller coaster I have ever read. The ups and downs made me dizzy, and I wasn't even experiencing the actual story. I was just reading about it on CNN.
Imagine — just imagine — that you win the $80 million Mega Millions jackpot. Holy heck! That's incredible! What luck! You're rich! Then, imagine that after taxes and fees, your prize is reduced to $38,873,628. This is like the part of the roller coaster where you peek over the top but there's a little flat plateau before the drop.
You know what? It's less than half the money, but you knew that would happen. $38 million is still a huge amount. You will be set for life. All because you bought a few lottery tickets. That's insane! That's amazing! You're still on the top of the world. Life is good.
Now imagine you're told you have to split the pot with your ex-wife. You were in the process of getting a divorce when you bought the lottery ticket, so technically, your assets were still combined. So even though you have been separated for years and presumably don't really get along anymore, she is entitled to half your lottery winnings.
I know. I don't know if I can imagine and faster and scarier fall to the bottom. But this is a real story, a real thing that happened to a Michigan lottery winner.
Richard Zelasko won the $80 Mega Millions jackpot in July 2013. It takes a while for these things to get sorted out, so it was only last week that he found out that his prize would be $38,873,628.
But here's the kicker. Richard and his then-wife, Mary Elizabeth Zelasko, filed for divorce back in 2011. The case was in arbitration when Richard won the prize, meaning the divorce wasn't yet finalized. But they were by all accounts living separate lives.
They were married in 2004 and have three children, but they had been separated since 2009.
Even so, the arbitrator ruled that the ticket was "part of the couples marital assets and awarded $15 million to the wife and divided the rest of their assets... He said that the 'marital property includes all property acquired from the date of marriage until the date of entry of the divorce decree,' including property acquired during a separation."
In other words, even assets\ Richard or Mary Elizabeth accrued after they were separated but before the divorce was final would be split evenly between them. The random person taking their sweet time to finalize the divorce* is responsible for this mess, which is probably not making Richard very happy.
*I'm sure they worked very hard, and these things are complicated and take time, so it wasn't their fault, per se, but also, yes it was.
The arbitrator argued that Richard had probably spent a bunch of money on lottery tickets throughout the marriage, so they would be seen as "losses" that were incurred jointly. If that's the case, winnings should be shared jointly, too. Even though Richard only spent one dollar on the winning ticket, "the dollar spent was arguably marital money, and as such, a joint investment."
I guess legally it is considered a "joint investment," but if he bought the ticket in 2013, when he actually won, that would have been four years after he and his wife separated and two years since they initiated divorce proceedings. That's multiple years!
I don't even remember what I was doing at this point one year ago. It must have felt like ancient history! I can't imagine Reihard's reaction when her found out Mary Elizabeth was entitled to half his prize.
Richard's lawyer Michael Robbins says, "It's very difficult to overturn an arbitration," but that Richard can try to appeal the ruling and right now is "considering his options."
Their divorce was finalized in 2018, nearly a decade after they split and seven years after they first filed.
I don't know why these things take so long! It seems like it could be a lot less complicated than it is. And obviously I don't know the circumstances of their divorce. Maybe it was amicable, maybe it was messy. But it doesn't surprise me that either of them are acting the way they are.
That's a whole lot of money. If I were Richard, I'd probably want it all. And if I were Mary Elizabeth, I'd probably be fighting for half of it, too. $15 million is a lot of money. That's life-changing stuff. And it seems with the divorce, which was no doubt expensive, they could both probably use the extra moolah.