Hitting and Splitting the Jackpot During Divorce

Most people don’t come across this issue, but we can all dream of hitting it big in the Powerball, right? So, if you just happen to get lucky (and going through a divorce or separated), how would an Illinois court divide your millions?

It is well-settled law that the trial courts in Illinois find lottery winnings to be marital property. See In re Marriage of Morris, 266 Ill.App.3d 277, 281 (2nd Dist. 1994).However, Section 503(d) of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (Act) provides that marital property should be divided in just proportions. (750 ILCS 5/503(d)) Just or equitable apportionment does not necessarily mean equal division–especially with lottery winnings. The court will consider the factors enumerated in the statute including, but not limited to, how long the parties have been married, the contribution of each party to the marriage, and the relevant economic circumstances of each.

In Morris, where the parties were only married for two years, the lottery winner argued that due to the length of the marriage there was essentially no “shared enterprise” between the parties and money should be entirely apportioned to him. The trial court agreed with him. However, on appeal, the Appellate Court disagreed, notwithstanding the short length of the marriage. The case was reversed and the wife received a share of the winnings from the trial court.

Even where the parties have been separated for several years there has been a trend toward lottery winners having to payout a portion of their earnings to their estranged spouse. See In re Marriage of Mahaffey,206 Ill.App.3d 859 (1st. Dist. 1990). In that matter the parties were married for more than twenty years but separated after only two! The lottery winnings were still divided on theory that they function much like a pension. The irrevocable right to a pension is acquired during the marriage but many times do not vest until after the divorce. The pension benefits, the court reasoned, are fruit of a shared enterprise and should be divided as marital property, as should lottery winnings.

As in all cases, the facts vary widely and individual statutory factors (i.e. the length of the marriage, the contributions to the marriage) should be argued accordingly to create a disparate allocation or a relatively equal one.


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