DES MOINES, Iowa – Thinking of lining up at the mini-mart for a shot at a $1.35 billion Mega Millions jackpot?
Maybe you should first dig into your coat pockets or your car’s glove box to make sure you don’t already have a winning ticket from an earlier drawing.
As players buy Mega Millions tickets ahead of Friday night’s drawing, lottery officials throughout the country say that every year players miss out on millions of dollars in prizes they either don’t realize they have won or decline to cash in, figuring the trouble isn't worth a small payoff. People nearly always show up for the biggest prizes, but million-dollar payoffs have been waiting for months to be claimed in Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and Washington state.
And more than two months after someone in California won a record $2.04 billion Powerball ticket, no winner has been named, though that person still has until November to come forward.
“Millions of dollars in California Lottery prize money go unclaimed each year — something I don’t think a lot of people realize,” said Carolyn Becker, a deputy director of the California Lottery. “I suspect most of those prizes are for people who never knew they’d won. Maybe they forgot to check their ticket, or misplaced it, and never saw the outcome of the draw.”
Sometimes the delay in cashing in a big winning ticket is strategic, as players opt to delay coming forward until the next year for tax reasons, said Jake Harris, the player relations manager for the Michigan Lottery.
Lottery officials also advise winners of the giant jackpots like the huge payout in California last November to work with financial planners and other advisers before cashing in their winning ticket — as long as they sign their winning ticket and keep it secure.
But there are enormous prizes that are never claimed.
A $1.6 million Powerball ticket sold in Sacramento, California, expired last May. And that same month, Harris said a $1 million Powerball ticket sold in Michigan expired.
If a winner of a Powerball or Mega Millions grand prize doesn’t come forward, the money is returned to the state lotteries in proportion to their sales. For smaller prizes of these games or for state lottery games, the states have different rules for unclaimed prize winnings.
In both California and Michigan, the money goes to a school aid fund, as do other lottery profits. Other states roll the money into future prizes, divert it to the general state budget or use if for different specific uses.
“We want our players that win prizes to get their prizes, but in the event they do expire, they do go to the school aid fund, which is helping all throughout the state K-12 programs and public education initiatives,” Harris said. “So I guess there is a silver lining there if you want to look at it that way.”
In fiscal year 2021 in Michigan, the last year when data was available, about $78 million, or 1.6% of sales, went unclaimed, Harris said. That includes winnings from scratch games as well as the draw games, like Mega Millions and Powerball. Michigan still has a couple $1 million tickets sold in October that haven't been turned in.
In Iowa, lottery officials have been waiting more than four months for someone to turn in a $1 million Mega Millions ticket sold in Ames not far from the Iowa State University campus.
In fiscal year 2022, $1.5 million in prizes from games like Mega Millions and Powerball went unclaimed in Iowa, said Mary Neubauer, a vice president at the Iowa Lottery.
“We want all our winners to claim the prizes they legitimately have won,” Neubauer said. “Throughout any given year, we send out reminders about large unclaimed prizes to call attention to them and remind people to double-check their tickets. We’re always hoping we’ll jog a winner’s memory in time for them to claim their winnings.”
Time is ticking away in Texas for two people who bought Mega Millions tickets worth $1 million each on July 29 at gasoline stations in Plano and Prairie View. Players in Texas have 180 days to claim prizes, meaning that if no one turns in the tickets by Jan. 25, the money will revert to the state.
In Minnesota, a $1 million Mega Millions ticket sold last July in a Minneapolis suburb remains unclaimed. And in Washington, a $1 million Powerball ticket sold in Airway Heights, near Spokane, last November is still out there somewhere.
The record for an unclaimed prize in the U.S. appears to be a $77 million Powerball prize bought in Georgia that saw its 180-day time limit expire in 2011.
Nebraska Lottery spokesperson Neil Watson said the state had $3.7 million in unclaimed prizes in the last fiscal year, which was a little higher than usual. And he noted that in 2021, a $86,000 ticket for a state draw game expired.
Still, Watson said, someone usually shows up with a ticket for the biggest prizes.
“Funny thing, when you win millions of dollars, people want to claim it,” he said.
Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska.