The Butlers kept their secret for more than two weeks, but like most lottery winners they eventually had to let the world know of their millions.
It was revealed Wednesday that Merle and Pat Butler, a 60-something couple from the tiny St. Louis suburb of Red Bud, Illinois, had the third and final winning ticket in the $656 million Mega Millions jackpot from March 30.
Their take was $217 million, which comes to $158 million after taxes, and the couple had good reason for waiting so long to come forward.
“I figured the quieter I keep it, the better we are to get it set up and get it going before we did the claim,” Merle Butler said.
Michael Boone, a Bellevue, Washington-based wealth manager, said he often encourages clients with “found money” – that is, inheritance, lottery winnings or high-dollar sports contracts – to keep a low profile.
It seems at least a few lucky souls got similar advice. Of 10 past lottery winners CNN tried to reach, seven had changed their numbers. Of the three who answered their phones, two politely declined to discuss their experiences.
“I still prefer to remain anonymous,” said a past District of Columbia Lotto winner.
Another past Lotto winner from Illinois said, “Everything went well with me,” before saying she’d prefer not to discuss it further.
Making your riches known can make you a mark, Boone said. Even friends and family have been known to take advantage, sticking their hands in their pockets and looking to the lottery winner when the check comes after dinner, he said.
“Anytime you’re a public figure, you’re going to attract attention from people who want to take things from you,” he said. “Most of us wouldn’t be too happy if the amount of our paychecks was in the newspaper.”
Yet this is exactly what happens with the majority of lottery winners.
Unlike their Mega Millions co-winners, the Butlers were compelled by Illinois law to publicize their identity. The other winners in Kansas and Maryland quietly collected their sudden fortune in private.
That’s because Kansas and Maryland allow it. According to the website for Powerball, another multistate lottery, Delaware, North Dakota and Ohio are the only other states that permit lottery winners to remain anonymous.
“Other states may offer to assist you in some way, including such things as the creation of trusts. But generally, you will want to hire an attorney to review the laws in your state to see what options you might have,” the website states.
While Kansas publicly presented the jackpot check to a cardboard cutout it dubbed “Anonymous,” Maryland announced that its winners were three school employees who vowed to continue working. The Maryland Lottery presented a check made out to "The Three Amigos" to the winners, who used the oversized IOU to cover their faces.
Maryland Lottery spokeswoman Carole Everett said that when lottery winners opt not to reveal their identities, the state lottery puts out a release with as much information as possible without identifying anyone.
“The larger the jackpot, the less likely – though not always the case – that they’re willing to do publicity,” she said.
Winners will tell her they don’t want their co-workers to know or they don’t want to jeopardize family relationships. Sometimes, the person is just the private sort, she said.
She said lottery officials will “charm them, encourage them, cajole them” to go public because it’s a celebration, it’s fun and it’s good to get the word out when someone lands a big prize.
“We want this to be a happy experience,” she said. “We want to let people know that people win. People always want to know about winners.”
All too often, however, people have nefarious motives for wanting this information, Boone said. He advises clients to keep mum if they can, knowing that if they ever decide they want their time in the sun, they can go public later.
When a person comes into a windfall, those who know them – and many who don’t – suddenly appear, said Boone, who has been advising clients for 27 years.
Charities begin soliciting. Self-styled entrepreneurs approach with pitches. Second cousins come looking for loans. Friends know someone who can help manage the money.
“That’s not to say you wouldn’t want to do something nice for those people, but it could become a full-time job,” he said.
The best thing a winner can do – after they pick themselves up off the floor, of course – is to hire a team of professionals to help you manage your newfound wealth, Boone said.
The Butlers, a pair of retired computer analysts, did just that, announcing at the Wednesday news conference that they spent their two weeks in hiding picking out “real good financial advisers.”
It’s almost impossible to stay the same person when you unexpectedly run into an immense sum of money, Boone said, but those who refuse to let the money identify them have the greatest success.
“The people who pull that off with grace and integrity are the people who realize that people are more important than money,” he said. “It’s not easy to do when it seems like the entire world is wanting to take something from you.”