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You've won the lottery -- now what?

Lottery fantasies -- we've all entertained them. Amused ourselves with daydreams of how we'd spend those millions: a BMW 535 wagon, an island in Georgian Bay, a cottage on the Irish coast, world travels and, of course (so you don't seem too greedy in case the fates are somehow evaluating you for a possible win), money to share with friends, family and worthy causes.

OK, that's a taste of my fantasy, but I know I'm not alone when it comes to harbouring dreams of winning. Almost 75 percent of Canadians have played the lottery, according to a study by Leger Marketing. In Ontario alone, more than half of all adults play at least once every two months and almost 25 percent play once a week, according to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG). In Atlantic Canada, 75 percent of adults play at least once a year. Last year, Lotto-Québec's sales hit $1.8 billion.

It appears that what unites this country from coast to coast to coast is the thrill of choosing six or seven numbers and waiting for the balls to drop. There is no clearcut demographic when it comes to lottery players. Wealthy, poor, male, female, young or old -- everyone shares the dream.

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As Canadian as maple syrup
Lotteries have been a national phenomenon since 1969. Today, there are five lottery corporations -- British Columbia Lottery Corporation, Western Canada Lottery Corporation, OLG, Lotto-Québec and Atlantic Lottery Corporation -- which oversee regional games, such as scratch cards, while national games, such as Lotto 6/49 and Super 7, are run by the Interprovincial Lottery Corporation. During fiscal 2005, total lottery sales in Canada hit $8.2 billion, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.

Put the party on ice
Week after week we play our numbers, entertain the odd fantasy and, with our hearts a tad heavy, tell ourselves maybe next time when the numbers don't match up. But what if they did match up? What if you won? What would you do? We're not talking fantasies, but practical steps. The movies show people jumping up and down then cut to accepting a surfboard-like cheque. What happens in between?

Assuming that upon purchase you didn't sign the back of your ticket, do so right away (as a general rule, whoever signs it, owns it). Then, make a photocopy of the ticket and put it in a safety deposit box.

Experts agree the most important thing to do after winning is…nothing. It's not a good idea to take to the streets screaming, "I just won the lottery!" In fact, tell as few people as possible. Avoid making any promises, and don't spend the money before you have it; after all, what if you're sharing that $5 million jackpot with 10 other ticket holders?

Winning the lottery is a life-changing event and you need time to digest and plan for your future. Doing nothing doesn't mean you slip your ticket into your wallet and head to work. Arrange a leave of absence while you sort out your new life. Splurge a little: some experts recommend getting it out of your system by smoking an expensive cigar and lighting it with a $100 bill; personally, I'd go for a ridiculously expensive pair of shoes before I'd set money on fire. But otherwise, don't make any major changes until you have cash in hand and a plan in place.

Hire experts
Unless you're a financial whiz, you'll want pros to help decide what to do with your money. Consult a financial adviser (investments that protect winnings and allow you to live off their interest are the goal for most), accountant (while Canadian lottery winnings are not subject to tax, you will pay taxes on income from future investments) and a lawyer (for estate planning and to draw up a will).

It's a good idea to have these things in place before you claim your prize.

Navigating the spot light
When you win, word will get out. Lottery corporations reserve the right to publish the name, address and photograph of any lottery winner. The general thinking is that this protects the integrity of the organizations since for every winner, there are many who didn't win and have a genuine interest in knowing who did. The information is usually released to the media, so prepare a few general responses about what you'll do with the money. Be vague -- you want to share it with family, see the world, etc. Really, it's no one's business and, again, you don't want to be held to any statements or tell unsavoury characters where you'll be vacationing.

Many lottery winners change their phone numbers to ones that are unlisted. This cuts down on unwelcome requests for cash and unsolicited advice. Experts say one of the most valuable things a lottery winner can do is learn to say "no."

You might want to consider leaving town for a while. It'll be an opportunity to clear your head and avoid the barrage of attention.

Timing is everything
While it's recommended that winners do and say nothing of their win for about three months, don't wait too long to claim your prize. When you're talking millions, the interest is substantial. Plus, tickets expire after 12 months; scratch 'n' win tickets have different, often shorter, expiry dates.

Where's the cheque?
With that in mind, and ticket in hand, it's time to claim your prize. In Canada, lottery winnings are paid out in a lump sum unless the nature of the game stipulates otherwise.

Bring valid photo identification and someone to help carry home that mammoth cheque. Actually, big winnings aren't usually paid by cheque. You'll want to open a special account to accommodate a large transfer, as a regular savings account won't suffice.

Major claims usually require a phone call and a trip to the lottery corporation's office. In Ontario, for example, winnings of more than $250,000 must be claimed at the OLG Prize Centre in Toronto. Phone numbers and addresses are listed on the gaming corporations' websites.  

From fantasy to reality
Those who actually win the lottery usually say the same thing: shock, numbness and a feeling that it isn't real prevail. In the early days, most people talk about paying off bills, buying a new vehicle and sharing the windfall with family.

Whatever your dreams, remember the old adage: if you don't play, you can't win. For most of us, however, it's more a case of: if we don't play, we can't fantasize about winning. And that's fun too -- just not as much fun as winning.

Michelle Warren is a writer in Toronto.

-- Posted: Dec. 18, 2006
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