The Edmond Sun

Opinion

August 1, 2012

Separated but not divorced can cost a financial jackpot

Richmond, Kentucky — My wife walked into a gas station and said she was buying a lottery ticket. I told her the odds were 176 million to one. She said that if she won, she would keep all the money to herself.

I explained that if she won, half of the jackpot is mine. A winning lottery ticket is a marital asset, to be split equally. Not everyone knows that.

One of the first lottery winners I ever got to know was the divorcing spouse of a guy who won the lottery. The divorce should have been final months earlier, but he was stalling it out while arguing a minor point about child support.

I’m not sure if he got his way about the child support. I do know that she got several million dollars instead.

I’m writing a new book called “Life Lessons from the Lottery.” The theme is that lottery winners have the same financial and social issues as other people. Only their problems are magnified 1,000 percent.

For those of us who follow the trials and tribulations of lottery winners, seeing a separated, but not-yet-divorced, couple hit the lottery has happened more than once.

This makes me think there are a lot of separated couples all across America.

Various census statistics say that 2 percent to 3 percent of Americans (roughly six or seven million people) are separated but don’t have their divorce final.

One of them was my late sister. She fell down a flight of stairs and died at age 46, leaving a minor child and an adult child.

She also left a husband we did not know about.

She had been married to this man for several years, and her younger child was his. However, she had told us she had divorced him several years earlier. They didn’t live together and, for most of that time, she had lived in California and he had lived in Cincinnati.

He came to her funeral, which I had arranged and paid for, and though he said hello, we didn’t really talk. Two days later, he had a lawyer file papers asking that he be named the estate administrator.

After exhaustive research, it turned out that my sister and her husband never filed for divorce. Thus, under Kentucky law, her husband was entitled to half of my sister’s estate. My nephew and niece would split the other half. It was not a lot of money but the fight caused a rift that never healed.

My sister died shortly after my mother had passed. Neither had wills, and I suspect my sister’s spouse could have elected against a will anyway. The only solution would have been for my sister’s divorce to have been finalized.

Which we thought it was.

My sister was a great example of why living separately but remaining married can blow up from a financial standpoint. However, an excellent 2010 New York Times article, “The Un-Divorced,” argues the opposite point.

People frequently live apart and stay married for financial reasons. It will be interesting to see if the most common reason, staying on a spouse’s health insurance and employee benefit plan, will change once national health care reform is completely implemented.

The Times’ article noted one of the most famous separated-but-not-divorced couples, billionaire Warren Buffett and his late wife, Susan. They separated in 1977, staying that way until Susan’s death in 2004.

Warren lived with another woman, whom he married after Susan’s death, and Susan often made public appearances with Buffett.

I suspect that someone as financially savvy as Warren Buffett had thought through the financial ramifications of his situation, but the average person does not.

Just like the average lottery player does not think about how being married but living separately will affect their situation.

Holly Lahti in Idaho won $190 million in the Mega Millions jackpot in 2011. She has zealously attempted to protect her privacy, but wound up making headlines as she was in the “separated but married” category.

Her husband, an ex-con with more than a dozen arrests on his record, came looking for his part of the loot. His first reaction was, “I won’t have to pay child support,” and according to a document obtained by RaderOnline.doc, that is exactly what happened.

Holly waived child and medical support for the children. It doesn’t say what she received in return.

Few people will ever win the lottery, but financial issues and dilemmas face anyone who is living separately but divorced.

DON MCNAY is a columnist for the Richmond (Ky.) Register. Email him at don@mcnay.com.

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