Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Waitress, A Waffle House And A Lottery Ticket

It’s fun to think about winning the lottery

There is a (former) waitress in Grand Bay, Alabama who did. She worked at a Waffle House. Enter Edward Seward, a regular at the restaurant. Seward liked the lottery. As Alabama did not have a lottery, he would travel to Florida to buy tickets. He also liked giving away the lottery tickets to the waitresses at the Waffle House. Our protagonist – Tonda Lynn Dickerson – had an agreement with four other waitresses that – if they ever won – they would share the winnings equally.

Would you know that the lottery ship docked, and Tonda Lynn had the winning ticket? The winnings were more than $9 million if paid out over 30 years, and over $5 million if paid in lump sum. First thing Tonda did was quit her job.

Tonda Lynn took the matter to her dad – Bobby Reece. Turns out her family was quite close and had talked about sharing lottery winnings if ever anyone won. Bobby seemed the most invested in the lottery discussion. Johnny Reece - the brother - was not so much into it.   

Bobby contacted Louisa Warren, the general counsel for the Florida Lottery Commission. Bobby explained the family understanding about the lottery. She told Bobby:

Don’t sign that ticket, period.”

She recommended that they form an entity to claim the winnings.

Enter an attorney and an S Corporation named 9 Mill, Inc.

NOTE: Get it?

Bobby sat down at the table and decided the ownership percentages while Tonda Lynn and her husband went car shopping. Turns out that Tonda and James (the husband) owned 49% of 9 Mill, Inc.

OBSERVATION: Bobby seems to have an intuitive grasp of tax issues.

Bobby and Mrs. Reece and James went to Florida to claim the ticket. They decided to take a 30-year payout of $354,000 per year.

... and they were notified of a competing claim against the winnings.

Remember the other waitresses at the Waffle House? They lawyered up. Their attorney filed suit in the Circuit Court of Mobile County, claiming that his clients were entitled to 80% of the winnings. The waitresses had an agreement. They also had a witness – Mr. Seward – who started the whole thing by giving Tonda Lynn the lottery ticket.

Tonda seemed to have forgotten any agreement, any Waffle House, any other waitresses. She had bought the ticket herself, it seems. There was a small problem with that, however. The tickets were sequentially numbered at the bottom, and her ticket – number 18 – was missing

The Circuit Court entered an order saying that the other four waitresses were right and that Tonda Lynn had to part with 80%.

Well, 9 Mill, Inc was not going to stand for that. They countersued, and the case went to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned the Circuit Court.

Tonda Lynn was back in the money, but not for the reason that you may think. The Court agreed that there was an agreement between the five waitresses, but the Court also pointed out that it could not enforce that agreement on public policy grounds. Alabama could not enforce a contract based on gambling. Gambling was not allowed in Alabama.

I suspect that Tonda Lynn can never go back to that Waffle House.

Not too long after, the IRS contacted Tonda Lynn. The IRS wanted its gift tax – approximately $770,000.

Tonda Lynn had a lottery ticket.  The winnings went into an entity of which she and her husband owned 49%. What happened to the other 51%? According to the IRS, Tonda Lynn must have gifted it.

You have to admit, they have a point.

Now Tonda Lynn and the IRS go to Court. She presents two arguments:

(1)     No gift occurred because at the time of transfer there existed an enforceable contract under Alabama law.
(2)     Alternatively, she and her family were all members of an existing partnership that was the true owner of the lottery ticket.

Let’s address this in reverse order.

The Court noted that the partnership, if one existed, was an odd partnership because it did not observe the formalities of a business activity. Ownership had never been spelled out, for example. The members were not required to contribute to the partnership or to buy lottery tickets regularly. A family member did not even know if another member bought a lottery ticket. There may have been an understanding, but that understanding did not rise to the level of an”activity” which could be housed in an entity.

Additionally, Tonda did not buy the ticket. It was given to Tonda, who would still have to explain how the ticket got into the entity.

On the first argument the Court reminded Tonda that there could have been no enforceable contract.  Alabama did not recognize gambling.

NOTE: Odd that Tonda Lynn would forget this, as this is the same reason Tonda won her case against the other waitresses. Short memory, I suppose.

Tonda Lynn owed gift tax.

The story is not done, though. There was one more issue before the court.

It turns out that the delay in cashing the winning ticket was a tax boon to Tonda, as it allowed time for the other waitresses to submit their claim. Had they not, then Tonda would have owed gift tax of approximately $770,000. The claim introduced uncertainty about the value of the gift. What would an independent party pay for that ticket at that moment, knowing there was a cloud, the resolution of which could mean forfeiture of 80% of the winnings?

The Court discounted the gift by more than two-thirds.

It was Tonda Lynn’s only victory with the IRS.

How did it turn out for Tonda Lynn? Her husband divorced her. He then supposedly kidnapped her.  She later declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Do you still want to win the lottery?

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I still want to win. Greed was one of the problem and dishonesty for this woman. She should have willingly shared it with the person who gave her the ticket.