DES MOINES, Iowa — A group of New Jersey construction workers noticed that the sixth member of their lottery pool had abruptly left work. Turns out, he had a lottery ticket worth $38.5 million and claimed he bought the winning ticket separately with his own money.
With the Mega Millions jackpot now at a record $1.6 billion, it may seem like perfect sense to pool money with co-workers or friends to increase the chance of winning a giant payday. But "with this many zeros attached to it, it is a recipe for disaster," said Rubin Sinins, the attorney for the five jilted construction workers in that 2009 case.
Sinins said such plans can turn into a protracted legal fight, hard feelings and court orders — like in the case of his clients, who eventually won a jury verdict and split the lottery winnings . But if you do venture down that road, he and other experts have some advice: draw up an agreement.
"Document precisely who is part of the lottery pool so that there's no misunderstanding later," he said.
Other attorneys and lottery officials agree, though they acknowledge it can seem silly to draw up agreements and copy ticket stubs given the dismal odds of actually winning . The odds for Tuesday night's Mega Millions jackpot are 1 in 302.5 million, while there's a slightly better chance — 1 in 292.2 million — of winning the $620 million Powerball prize Wednesday night.
If there's no winner Tuesday night, lottery officials said the estimated jackpot would jump again for Friday night's drawing, to $2 billion.
Mary Neubauer, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Lottery, said the key is to put a few rules into writing. That includes details about how any prize would be divvied up, members of the group, and what should happen if a regular player is away and didn't chip in for a specific drawing.
And always make copies of group tickets — including identifying numbers on the back of tickets — before the drawing so everyone is aware of the potential winnings numbers.
"You're thinking about a best case scenario of winning, but you're taking precautions about a worst case of fighting over the winnings," Neubauer said.
The Missouri Lottery recommends people also have a plan for notifying group members if they win, figuring out who would be the group spokesperson and maybe even decide what outsider would serve as financial planner.
Despite its importance, it's understandable that such planning can seem unnecessary, acknowledged Christopher Burns, a tax and estate attorney in Minneapolis.
"Laying the groundwork is important, but most people would not bother to fully lay the groundwork because the odds are so small," Burns said. "People aren't going to typically expend the time or the effort to have anything in writing or take other steps because the odds are so remote."
Jennifer Volpert is among those going with the pool idea, but noted she and her co-workers in the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration would be prepared if they won the record jackpot .
Volpert bought seven Mega Millions tickets during her lunchtime Tuesday at a Little Rock convenience store. She planned to draw up a contract and have everyone sign when she returned, specifying the prize would be split seven ways.
"We all said we'd turn in our resignation at the same time," she said, laughing.
About 20 people at Todd Murphy's media monitoring company in Omaha, Nebraska, also formed an office pool to buy Mega Millions tickets, but first they had to sign a contract that included a stipulation: "If we win, you'll work 60 days after winning so we can replace you." Murphy, the company's CEO, said no one objected.
Of course, group lottery purchases aren't for everyone. Mark Maddy, who works in a machine shop in Champlain, New York, said the nine people who work at the company love betting: "We'll bet on anything," he said, "even the first snow flake."
But not lottery jackpots.
"We're all too greedy," Maddy said. "We buy our own tickets."