A single ticket sold in Simpsonville, South Carolina, took October’s headline-grabbing, $1.5 billion Mega Millions jackpot. But the winner has yet to claim the prize. What happens to the money if no one ever does?
The states that participate get their money back and spend it how they want. Some put it toward education, others toward taxes or infrastructure or law enforcement. Many put it in a pot for future prizes and promotions.
There are 46 jurisdictions (44 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) that participate in Mega Millions. Since the ticket was sold in South Carolina, the 45 other jurisdictions each contribute a sum, proportionate to their amount of ticket sales, to the South Carolina lottery for the jackpot. When no winner comes forward at the end of the allowed period (180 days in South Carolina and many other states, but six months or a year in others), each state takes back its unclaimed jackpot money, adds it to other unclaimed prize money, and directs it to its own cause—generally dictated by state law.
In Maryland and some other states, for example, unclaimed winnings go into pots for player prizes related to second-chance games and promotions and other bonus prizes. In North Carolina and many states in the South, it goes to education. Unclaimed lottery winnings in Wisconsin go to the state’s general fund and are used for property tax relief. Georgia reserves some of its for treatment for gambling addiction. Arizona spends some on education funds for Native American children, legal advocates for abused children, and a task force for children abused and exploited online. In South Carolina, where the winning ticket was purchased, its share of unclaimed prizes goes into a fund directed by the general assembly that is generally used for education expenses. It all varies.
It’s been about seven weeks since the drawing. The winner is likely still getting their bank accounts in order, consulting with an attorney, and otherwise preparing for the radical changes arising from a vast and sudden financial windfall. Even though the jackpot will likely be claimed before the 180 days expire, the amount of unclaimed prize money each state ends up with is still significant. In South Dakota last year, ticket-buyers walked away from $541,000 in lottery prize money. In North Carolina, they left $10.36 million on the table. In California, it was $36 million. In Arizona, one person failed to collect a $100,000 Powerball ticket. First-time Mega Millions players often do not realize that even if you don’t win the jackpot, matching some of the numbers in a drawing can still win you smaller prizes. With all the attention that went to the $1.5 billion jackpot, many players from the Oct. 23 drawing probably fall into that category.
The jackpot winner still has plenty of time, but if somehow the winning ticket got lost or went through the wash with a pair of pants and was destroyed, the much-hyped drawing could end with disappointment. It may be that one person will add $1.5 billion to the states’ coffers. A slightly harder thing to quantify: the pity—and schadenfreude—millions would feel for that one poor schlub in South Carolina.
Update, Dec. 12: This post was originally published on Nov. 14. We’ve republished it with small updates because the winner still hasn’t claimed the prize.