5 things to do first if you win Mega Millions or Powerball jackpot

There’s nearly $800 million up for grabs this weekend in the nation’s two largest lotteries.

With no ticket matching all winning numbers in Wednesday night’s Powerball drawing, the jackpot has jumped to $350 million.

Between that and Mega Millions’ $444 million top prize, a whopping $794 million is waiting for winners in the next two drawings: Friday night for Mega Millions and Saturday night for Powerball.

MARK RALSTON | AFP | Getty Images

If you’re lucky enough to hit the jackpot in either game, here are some things that experts recommend doing right off the bat to protect your windfall.

1. Chill

While you might be eager to claim your winnings, experts say it’s best not to rush over to lottery headquarters the day you discover you’ve become one of the wealthiest people in the country.

For both the Powerball and Mega Millions jackpots, winners get anywhere from three or six months to a year to claim their prize, depending on where the winning ticket was purchased.

Experts recommended taking a deep breath and using as much time as you need to prepare to claim your winnings. That should include assembling a team of experienced professionals: an attorney, financial planner, tax advisor and insurance agent.

“The time between the day you win the lottery and the day you claim is your last period of normalcy,” said Jason Kurland, a partner at Rivkin Radler, a law firm in Uniondale, New York.

2. Protect your ticket

The standard advice from experts is to sign the back of the winning ticket so that if you are separated from it, your signature can help ensure you still get the prize.

However, signing it could interfere with your ability to shield your identity from the public, depending on where you bought it. A handful of states let you claim anonymously, while others require the winner’s name to be announced. Others will allow a trust or other legal entity to claim the prize on your behalf, thereby keeping your name out of the public eye.

This illustrates why you should contact an experienced attorney before doing much of anything. And make sure you put the original winning ticket in a safe place.

3. Keep quiet

4. Weigh the payment options

Jackpot winners get to decide between taking an immediate lump sum or spreading out their winnings over three decades. Either way, the IRS will take 24% before the money reaches you.

For the $444 million Mega Millions jackpot, the cash option is $281.1 million. For the $350 million Powerball haul, it’s $221 million.

The 24% federal tax withholding would reduce Mega Millions’ cash option by $67.5 million, to $213.6 million, and Powerball’s by $53 million, to $168 million. However, because the top marginal tax rate is 37%, the winner should anticipate owing more to Uncle Sam at tax time.

Additionally, state taxes typically are withheld or due, depending on where you live and where the ticket was purchased.

5. Take a deep breath

Before spending a dime, think about what your sudden wealth means. Not just financially, but emotionally.

Instead of giving in to the temptation to buy big-ticket items right off the bat, give yourself time to process the magnitude of your win.

This is often when winners begin to think about their legacy and what societal contributions they want to make. Some even set up their own charitable organizations.

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