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Winner of $1.5B lottery still a mystery, time is running out

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The clock is ticking on someone to claim the $1.5 billion-plus Mega Millions lottery prize from a ticket sold in South Carolina.

The winning ticket with all six numbers drawn Oct. 23 was purchased by someone at a gas station outside Simpsonville.

The State reports the person or group has 180 days to claim the winnings. But as of this week, no one has come forward.

If the money isn’t claimed by late April, the money will return to the 44 states that hold Mega Millions lotteries. South Carolina’s total from that pot would add up to $11.2 million, which would go into the state’s education fund.

“This is unusual, considering that it’s $1.5 billion,” said Holli Armstrong with the S.C. Lottery Commission, still waiting on someone to come forward with the winning ticket.

Tax experts said the delay may just be the winner wanting to get his or her financial situation in order.

“This can be a life-changing amount of money,” said Ken Newhouse, an accountant with West Columbia’s Moore Beauston & Woodham firm and legislative liaison for the S.C. Association of CPAs. “But a lot of people don’t know how to control it, and they lose it over time.”

The S.C. Lottery advises winners to speak to a professional tax adviser and an attorney before they collect their winnings. That is because the winner may need more specialized financial services than someone who only has dealt with a checking account.

Joe Poore, a senior manager with the Elliott Davis accounting firm in Greenville, thinks the winner may see a tax advantage in waiting to claim the money until after Jan. 1.

Since the passage of a new tax overhaul in 2017, there have not been major changes to tax laws. But when the winner receives the payout will determine the year when tax has to be paid — next April 15 for winnings claimed this year — versus a full year later — in April 2020 — for income received in January.

“That’s 16 more months it can sit in a bank and collect interest,” Poore said. “That could be a difference of millions of dollars.”

If the winner accepts one lump-sum payment, around a quarter of the winnings will be withheld for taxes, leaving the winner with $878 million. But more of that income still would be taxable on the next April 15. Delaying the payout would allow the winner to defer paying taxes on more than $100 million until 2020.

The winner also has the option of taking an annuity of $1.5 billion in 30 payments.

Newhouse said the winner could set up a trust or a charitable foundation which would protect more of the money from the tax man, and it also would give the winner a vehicle to spend their money in a more philanthropic way.

Poore recommends the winner decide ahead of time how much of the money they want to give away and to what causes.

“You can say 20 percent will be given away over this time horizon, and these are the three kinds of charities I want to give to,” Poore said. “Then, if you get a request that doesn’t fit in that bucket, it’s not such an emotional decision. You just say, ‘I’m sorry. This doesn’t align with my goals.’ “

Poore thinks anxiety might be playing a role in the prize winner’s delay in coming forward. Even after buying a ticket, the winner may not be ready for just how much their life is about to change.

But if the winner does overcome their worries or gets their foundation set up, tickets can be presented at the lottery’s claims center Mondays through Fridays, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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