(MoneyWatch) What should you do if you win the lottery? As someone who has developed a national reputation for working with sudden wealth recipients -- or as a client recently remarked, a "lottery financial advisor," there are countless financial, tax, and legal strategies you can take to make the most of your sudden money. But not so fast! Winning the lottery is a unique sudden wealth event that requires several immediate decisions. Here are six things you should do before you claim your lottery prize:
1. Sign the ticket. You want to make sure you immediately sign the winning lottery ticket. Lottery tickets are "bearer" instruments. This means that whoever holds the ticket is the winner. I would also suggest you take a photo and video of yourself with the ticket. If something unforeseen happens, these steps can go a long way to prove you are the winner.
2. Take care of yourself. This step has nothing to do with your lottery prize and everything to do with you and your health. While everybody handles these things differently, it's not uncommon to experience anxiety, paranoia, or even a strange out-of-body feeling. For some, these feelings are fleeting, but for others, they can persist and make it hard to sleep, function and make logical decisions. So, first and foremost is making sure you take care of yourself. Seek professional help if necessary.
3. Decide if you want a lump-sum or an annuity. With a big lottery win, you will often have the option of taking a lump sum payout or to receive the payout over time. This will be one of the most important decisions you will make. Although a great majority of lottery winners opt to receive a lump sum payment, there are definitely some advantages (and disadvantages) in taking the payout over time. You'll want your accountant and financial advisor to review both options and discuss the pros and cons of each. The big advantage for taking the money over time is that it provides you with a "do over" card. We've all heard the stories of lottery winners who have lost it all in a few short years. By getting the money over time, even if things go badly the first year, you will have 29 more chances to get it right. It's definitely something to think about sooner rather than later, because in some states while you may have 180 days from the drawing to claim the prize, you may only have 60 days if you want a lump-sum check. Also, the day you claim the prize, you will need to make your decision, so you'll want to get your team assembled so they can crunch the numbers for you.
4. Assemble your team. When you win a large lottery, you'll want to make sure you have a stellar team who can help you make the best decisions. You'll want an attorney -- actually, you'll undoubtedly use many attorneys (e.g., business, tax, trusts and estate), but don't worry about finding everyone on day one. Find a good attorney to guide you through the initial steps and who can introduce you to others as needed. And at a minimum, you will also want a CPA and a Certified Financial Planner who have experience guiding clients who have received sudden money.
5. Make a publicity plan. In many states, you don't have the option of remaining anonymous if you win the lottery. As soon as you claim the prize, the whole world will know your name. Journalist and TV reporters will come from far and wide and will all want to talk to you. The best approach is to develop a public relations strategy before you claim the prize. Decide what you want to share, when you want to share it, and if you will be your own spokesperson or if you want to have someone else speak on your behalf.
6. Don't lose yourself. Lottery winners often complain that after winning their lives are turned upside down and that they are thrust into a new life. It's hard to keep things exactly the same when you get a check for millions of dollars, but at the same time, you don't want to lose the aspects of your life you now cherish. Step outside the craziness of the situation for a moment and make a list of Who and What you love about your life that you don't want to change. Money is best when you use it to improve your life, not necessarily change it.
So what should you do if you win the lottery? Even before you claim the prize these six steps will help you get control of your sudden money and will put you on the right financial path so you can make the most of winning the lottery and enjoying your new life.