It is a Saturday night no different than your previous Saturday nights, waiting impatiently in front of the television as you clutch your lottery ticket in your hand, checking and double-checking that the numbers you hand-picked have not changed since you last glanced at them. With your other hand, you keep your fingers crossed that tonight is your big break, because tonight you prayed extra hard to the lottery gods. The numbers are called and you recite them, one-by-one, trembling with every corresponding number. A rush of elation courses through your veins as you realize the lottery gods answered your prayer and you just won the lottery.
Suddenly, you contemplate the myriad of ways you can spend your big winnings – you pay off your student loan and get 20 years of your life back, maybe you pay off your mortgage, buy a new home in a secluded area – preferably one with a four car garage to harbor your three brand new custom-made cars, and one lonely port for your current car to remind you of your humble beginnings – or perhaps you buy the Boeing 757 you always dreamt of, fly out to Las Vegas for the weekend, and put it all on red in the hopes you double your luck right before you put your head down for a good night’s rest in a 10,000 square foot suite at Caesar’s Palace.
Not so fast.
You get served with a Complaint for Divorce as you are on your way out to the Lamborghini dealership and suddenly, your best weekend just became your worst nightmare. Your marriage has been less than harmonious for quite some time, and although you are not surprised that your spouse has initiated legal action, you begin to wonder what will happen to your lottery winnings. Does your spouse have any claim to them? Will a judge tell you to cut your spouse a check for 50% of your winnings? These are important questions to consider. Even more important is the need to seek the advice of professional legal counsel to help you navigate the muddy waters of equitable distribution in matrimonial dissolution matters.
If you are a New Jersey resident, you may not like to hear what the courts have determined, unless of course you are the spouse of a lottery winner. For instance, in the matter of DeVane v. DeVane, 280 N.J. Super. 488 (App. Div. 1995), the wife won $3.6 million dollars in the New Jersey lottery three years prior to filing a divorce action against her husband. At the trial level, the court held her lottery winnings were, in fact, a marital asset and subject to equitable distribution, with the husband receiving one-half of the winnings. On appeal by the wife, the Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed the trial court’s decision of the trial court and applied the equitable distribution factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23.1.
Generally, New Jersey law provides that any and all property acquired by either husband or wife between the date of marriage through the filing of a Complaint for Divorce, irrespective of the manner in which the property is titled, is considered marital property and subject to equitable distribution. Lottery winnings prove to be no exception to the rule. However, it is important to note that the Court gives consideration to when the lottery ticket was purchased, as this might determine whether that fortune is an asset to both parties, an asset to just the purchasing party, or income to the purchasing party that might rise to the threshold of a significant change in circumstances in a post-judgment action. If you are fortunate enough to win the lottery in New Jersey, no matter how big or how small the jackpot, it is important that you know your legal rights to these winnings in the context of a matrimonial legal action, or more appropriately, your spouse’s legal rights to these winnings. For more information on this issue, or for assistance in navigating a similar issue, please contact Jeralyn L. Lawrence, Esq.