Lottery, inheritance or miracle: What to do with a windfall

By Brian J. O’Connor

So what do you do, like the Oceans 16 lottery winners, you suddenly come into a big clump of cash? 

 Try nothing. Then a little more nothing. And then, a few very smart somethings.

“Don’t make any big financial decisions for at least six months and maybe even a year, says Dan Rottenberg, author of The Inheritors Handbook. “If someone just died you’re not in an emotional state to make decisions like that. — and get some good financial advisers.”

 Once you’ve decided not to decide, he advises, spend a little, Rottenberg adds.

 “Take a small amount of that money, maybe $1,000, and treat yourself. Maybe take a trip to Europe or a nice dress or suit, something that will make you feel good about this relative of yours. Then, if you blow all the money as some inheritors do, at least you’ll feel some connection with that ancestor.”

Even if you don’t get the money from your  long-lost Great Uncle Ernie, an instead win the lottery, cash in stock options or sell your genius invention, you still need to think before you head out on a spending spree.

  Is it a lot? If it’s a small amount of money, choosing the right financial goal still can make a big difference in your life. Do you need to pay down debt, boost retirement savings or put it away for the kids’college education? Investing even a small sum can make a big difference in your life in 10 or 20 years. Or, maybe it’s enough for a once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation. Either way, choose something that make an impact, rather than frittering the money away.

 ♦ Ask for some help: If it’s more than 5 percent of your annual income, Rottenberg says it’s time to turn to the professionals. If you’ve been willed the money, then you’ll have to wait for the estate to go through probate court, which can take some time. If the money has been placed in a trust, you should leave it there until you and your advisers survey all the options. In other instances, such as when a spouse inherits an Individual Retirement Account, you may need to make some important decisions under specific deadlines.

  Don’t forget about taxes: While most estates will escape the federal inheritance tax, you may need to deal with other tax issues if you inherit stocks or other investments. Insurance proceeds, though, are passed to you tax-free.Most other windfalls, such as a big gain on stock options, sale of your company, or the auction proceeds from that undiscovered Monet you found in the attic are going to be taxable

  ♦ Set new goals: If this is a truly life-changing amount of money, then stop to consider how you want your life to change. Changing careers, quitting a job, improving your lifestyle, starting a business or sending the kids to private school suddenly may not be out of reach. Make distinct choices or you could end up blowing it all with no tangible results.

  ♦  Get over any guilt: With all the emotional strings that come attached to an inheritance, you may need help handling your feelings. Sometimes, Rottenberg notes, inheritors feel guilty because they not only didn’t do anything to earn the money, but they also got it as a result of a beloved relative dying. Other times, inheritors get delusions of grandeur and think they can do anything, or become terrified of losing the money or suspicious that everyone is out to get their largesse. Even if some old song from your high school garage band becomes a million-seller, you may still feel somehow guilty or unworthy that you — and not someone else — landed the big score.

 “People do everything from saying, ‘Let’s go to Vegas and blow it,’ which I’ve see on on one or two occasions, to really shepharding that next egg for as long as possible,” says financial planner Phil Dyer.

 “All too often people look at it as found money,” he concludes, “and there are emotional issues that come with that, and people don’t make the best money decisions.”


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