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Separated instead of divorced, lottery winner may have to share

An Idaho woman who has won about $90 million in the Mega Millions lottery has just learned that she may be forced to share her winnings with her abusive estranged husband from whom she has been separated for years. The couple separated but has never filed for divorce, so he may still have a legal claim, according to Idaho lottery officials.

Even more troubling, it appears that the woman's marriage was irrevocably over despite her never having divorced her husband. She and her estranged husband married in 2001, but they separated several years later after apparently serious domestic problems.

Both she and her husband were booked on battery charges in 2003. She has a black eye in her mug shot from that arrest, according to a report in the Daily Mail of London. Her husband has been convicted of domestic battery, drug possession and purchasing alcohol for a minor, and appears to have a long arrest record.

The 29-year-old bank clerk won half of a $380 million jackpot, along with an unrelated person. After taxes, the one-time payout option on that jackpot would amount to around $90 million.

Doesn't a separation mean your ex can't get half your income?

Some states have a process called legal separation, which essentially ends the financial interconnections of marriage without a divorce. In others, such as Georgia, a post-nuptial agreement can be used to limit a separated spouse's access to windfall income such as lottery winnings. Unfortunately, the Idaho woman and her husband appear to have instead allowed the marriage to continue even though they lived apart, taking no formal legal action. Therefore, there is a good chance that her husband does have a claim on her winnings. It will be up to an Idaho judge to decide.

Under Idaho family law, all assets obtained by either party during a marriage are considered community property, with few exceptions. And, community property is typically divided 50/50, unlike in Georgia. (In Georgia, marital assets are divided "equitably," which means fairly; not necessarily 50/50.)

What that means for the Idaho woman and her two children is that her estranged husband is apparently in a good enough position to claim half of her winnings that Idaho lottery officials plan not to release her check until the question is decided.

If you are considering separating without obtaining a divorce, it is very important to get good legal advice. Divorce is not for everyone, but it is essential to understand your rights and responsibilities if you choose legal separation.

Source: USA TODAY, "Lottery winner may have to split it with estranged husband," Douglas Stanglin, January 18, 2011

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