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Originally published November 10, 2011 at 5:34 PM | Page modified November 10, 2011 at 10:14 PM

Illinois lottery winners keep earnings a secret

A couple living in Chicago have two teenage children — and a $29.5 million secret. The couple recently won the Illinois Lottery but have not told friends, family or their children. Nor do they plan to.

Chicago Tribune

quotes Why doesn't everyone do this? Why would you want to get pestered or worse yet robbed? Read more
quotes I have always thought that if I won the lottery, I would find a way to keep it secret. ... Read more
quotes I would never go out and tell the world I won a ton of money. Basiclally I don't have... Read more

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CHICAGO — Somewhere in Chicago live a modest, middle-class couple with two teenage children and a $29.5 million secret.

They recently won the Illinois Lottery but have not told friends, family or even their children. The couple plan to keep their jobs — he runs a small business — and rear their children with a strong work ethic by keeping secret their loaded bank account.

"It's real unusual. Most people, they're ready to jump on it. They want to go on TV, they want to tell people," said their attorney, Pat Agnew, who has worked with five lottery winners of $10 million or more. "They seem to be very levelheaded and very different than most winners."

After buying the winning ticket at a suburban gas station in June, the couple contacted Agnew and created a limited-liability company, or LLC. The prize was awarded to Spring River LLC about a month after the winning numbers were announced, allowing the couple to collect the winnings while keeping their names private.

They are the first winners in the lottery's history to claim a prize as an LLC, but they are among about 20 percent of the $1 million-plus prizewinners in Illinois who form a legal entity to claim their money. The extra step can allow winners to keep their riches out of the spotlight or create tax benefits, said Lisa Crites, legal assistant with the state lottery.

When lottery winners sign a prize-claim form to collect their money, they also agree to do media interviews and appear in Illinois Lottery ads and promotions. Making winners public also provides transparency, lottery officials said, to show the public that prize money goes to the winner.

Legal experts said the first reaction of lottery winners often is to safely turn in the lottery ticket and put their name on the prize, but winners should consider the consequences of going public.

When Mike Wittkowski, of Inverness, won $40 million from the Illinois Lottery in 1984, it made international headlines and was at the time called the largest prize ever won by an individual in North America.

The first few weeks after the announcement were "kind of crazy," he said, with strangers recognizing him and expecting him to buy them a drink. He also received death threats and more than 1,000 letters from people around the world asking him for money, he said.

"It was heart-wrenching sob stories, and people told me that I owed them," Wittkowski said. "It was a little scary."

In extreme cases, news of a lottery windfall can be dangerous. In 2009, Eric Hawkinson, of Rolling Meadows, told a close friend he won $100,000 from the Illinois Lottery, and he was shot five times days later when two men broke into his home looking for his winnings. He survived.

The friend's brother in April was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery. The gunman was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

"You never know who your true friends are until something like this happens," Hawkinson said.

About 1,365 prizes totaling $1 million or more have been awarded since the state lottery began in 1974. Of those, about 250 jackpots were claimed as a formal partnership and 13 by trusts, Crites said.

An LLC, trust or partnership, often formed when a group wins a lottery jackpot together, can be managed by an attorney, which helps the winners shield their identities from the public.

Instead of announcing the ticket holder's name in media releases when the prize was claimed, the lottery said the winner was Spring River LLC and directed media calls to the attorney.

Illinois Lottery rules stipulate that those who win $1 million or more can be required to participate in a news conference to assure the public the prizes are being awarded. Winners of $10,000 or more must turn over the names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of anyone receiving a cut of the money, Crites said.

"We require them to be submitted so we can do our due diligence," she said. "As payees of state funds, the information is a matter of public record under the Freedom of Information Act, but we won't necessarily throw them out to the media if there is a reason not to."

Because most lottery winners have little experience with the media, Illinois Lottery spokesman Mike Lang said, officials try to help them.

"We have hearts here at the lottery," he said. "If someone has a good reason not to do it, we'll listen and we'll agree to what they're asking. If you have a $300 million prize, you better have a pretty good reason."

In the case of the couple's ticket worth $29.5 million, Lang said the lottery's efforts to hold a news conference "fell through the cracks" because it happened as the lottery's new management company was settling in and plans were taking shape to separate the lottery from the Illinois Department of Revenue.

The couple plan to pay off debt, support charities and save money for their children's college, "and that was about it," Agnew said.

Michael Whitty, an attorney who specializes in estate planning and taxation with Vedder Price P.C., said he has warned lottery winners he has worked with about going public.

"My best advice to the lottery winners is three things: Take it slow, keep it quiet and get a good financial adviser," he said.

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