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Hoping to cash in on the Mega Millions jackpot? Here's why winning isn't always a good thing

That $970 million prize may sound like a dream, but there are plenty of cautionary tales of past lottery winners who have lost it all — and more.
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Winning the $970 million Mega Millions jackpot may sound like a dream come true. But if you purchase a lottery ticket, buyer beware: Coming into that much wealth can easily become a nightmare.

"You assume money makes you happy or takes care of all your problems. But money doesn't do that," warned financial planner Jim Shagawat, president of Windfall Wealth Advisors in Paramus, New Jersey, a firm that specializes in helping people navigate large sums of money they have received. "And it can cause friction with family and friends."

Friday's Mega Millions drawing is the second-largest lottery prize in U.S. history. With odds at one in 302.6 million, chances of winning are slim — but if you do somehow manage to correctly pick all six numbers and claim that jaw-dropping prize, you can bet your life will be different, although not necessarily for the better.

"When you come into a large sum of money, particularly when you're looking at a near 1 billion payout, there's this idea that I have a great sense of security, and the idea that I will never have to worry about money again. In fact, it's completely the opposite. You have to worry about money more than ever before," said Paul Golden, a spokesman for the National Endowment for Financial Education, a Denver-based nonprofit that helps people manage money.

Golden noted there are a range of feelings that winners can experience: Along with happiness and excitement, anxiety, fear, and stress are common with any sort of windfall, whether it's from a lottery win, an inheritance, or any other large payout.

And while Golden said there are no statistics on how often lottery winners blow through their earnings, there are plenty of cautionary tales.

Like David Lee Edwards, a former drug addict who won a $27 million jackpot in Florida in 2001. After buying a mansion, cars and other high-end purchases, he and his wife started using drugs again. Following multiple arrests for possession of drugs, Edwards lost all his money in only a few years and ended up living in a storage unit.

Then there was Andrew "Jack" Whittaker, a West Virginia building contractor who was already a millionaire when he won $315 million in 2002. Things turned sour eight months later when thieves stole $545,000 that he had stashed in his car and only got worse from there: Four years after his win, Whittaker was broke. He faced multiple lawsuits, including one by a casino to whom he owed $1.5 million after checks he tried paying them back with bounced.

And Willie Seeley, who along with 15 co-workers at a car maintenance garage in New Jersey won $450 million in 2013, said the drama was "nonstop" after his win, with media constantly calling him and people asking for money. He and his wife quit their jobs and bought a new pick-up truck and Chrysler, made home repairs, and helped some family out — and his share of the jackpot ran out fast.

"There are days I wish we were back to just getting paid every two weeks," Seeley said.

Experts say there's a tendency for lottery winners to act impulsively. They advise immediately compiling a team of professionals, including an attorney, a financial adviser, an accountant, and even a psychologist to help make wise decisions with their newfound wealth.

"The biggest mistake I see is people who try to do this on their own right from the get-go," said Jason Kurland, an East Meadow, New York, attorney who specializes in lottery winners. "Those are the ones who put themselves out in the open, who can't limit their exposure, and are now an easy target for people, whether it's a bogus charity coming to you or someone with an investment that's a [supposed] no-lose situation."

While not every state allows lottery winners to remain anonymous, there is a loophole through which a winner can stay private anywhere: If they create a trust with a non-identifying name and then designate themselves as a beneficiary, their attorney can pick up the lottery check as a trustee, allowing the winner to maintain some privacy, according to Forbes.

If you can't keep the news to yourself, there are still other ways to protect your money. Experts advise recipients of any windfall not to make any huge investments or financial gifts right away, and to make sure to set money aside for taxes.

And they point out that not every lottery win ends in misery.

"Most of the people who win these huge amounts live wonderful lives," Kurland said. "The opportunities the world has to offer are so different than the ones the night before their win."