US man told to give share of lottery win to ex-wife

MICHIGAN • How much credit can a person take for good luck? That was the question at the centre of a high-stakes divorce case that came before a Michigan appeals court earlier this month.

A three-judge panel ruled on June 13 that Mr Richard Zelasko must share the US$80 million (S$108.4 million) lottery jackpot he won while in the middle of a divorce from his now-former wife, Mary.

The court upheld the decision of arbitrator John Mills who reasoned that since the couple had shared past losses, the aptly named Rich - by his own account a long-time gambler - should share the fruits of his good fortune.

But Mr Zelasko's attorney Scott Bassett, in a court filing cited by the Associated Press, argued that the credit was his client's alone. Mr Bassett said: "Rich was lucky but it was his luck, not Mary's, that produced the lottery proceeds."

The couple had been married for seven years when they filed for divorce in 2011, but the split was not final until last year.

When Mr Zelasko bought the winning ticket in 2013, the couple were living separately while Mr Mills worked out the details of their split, including child support payments and custody of their three kids. After taxes and deductions, the winnings totalled US$38,873,628.

A three-judge panel ruled on June 13 that Mr Richard Zelasko must share the US$80 million (S$108.4 million) lottery jackpot he won while in the middle of a divorce from his now-former wife, Mary.

Months after Mr Zelasko's big win, Mr Mills noted the father had not paid child support. The court also noted that in the years they were together, Mrs Zelasko earned about three times more than Mr Zelasko did running his T-shirt shop.

It took Mr Zelasko more than a month to realise he had hit the jackpot. In a winner's profile on the Mega Millions website, he said he had left the winning ticket in his wallet while going away on several trips.

"That would have been a terrible time to lose your wallet," the website quoted him as saying.

After filing for divorce, the couple agreed to appoint Mr Mills "to decide all contested issues", according to the court filing. But Mr Mills died in 2014, after deciding that the lottery winnings were part of the marital estate but before the arbitration process was complete. "As losses throughout the marriage were shared jointly, so should winnings be shared jointly," Mr Mills had said.

Mr Zelasko asked the court to vacate Mr Mills' decision, arguing that the arbitrator was biased against him and that "death was the ultimate disqualification", as Mr Bassett said in oral arguments.

The appeals court ultimately decided the case based on the narrower question of whether Mr Mills had made a legal error, ruling that his decision should stand.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2019, with the headline 'US man told to give share of lottery win to ex-wife'. Print Edition | Subscribe