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If you win $1.6 billion Mega Millions drawing, this is what you need to do

Daysi Lorenzo, center, sells lottery tickets at La

Daysi Lorenzo, center, sells lottery tickets at La Preferida Superdiscount store in Hialeah, Fla., on Monday. Credit: AP / Wilfredo Lee

Remember to breathe.

That's the first thing to do if you win the $1.6 billion Mega Millions drawing Tuesday night.

After you scream, jump for joy and recheck the ticket, you'll need to calm down before making the most important financial and legal decisions of your life. They can elevate you to previously unfathomable heights or lead you down dark, depressing paths, experts say.

The lottery fever gripping the country came to a possible climax Tuesday at 11 p.m., depending on whether someone actually picked the winning numbers.  People were able to buy Mega Million tickets up until 10:30 p.m. On Wednesday night, there will be a separate Powerball drawing for $620 million.

The winning Mega Millions numbers Tuesday were 5, 28, 62, 65 and 70. The Mega Ball was 5 and the Megaplier was 3.

"If you win, take a breath," said Mega Millions spokeswoman Carole Gentry. "Then sign the back of the ticket."

That signing is especially important because, until the ticket is signed, it is a "bearer instrument," meaning it's like walking around with a billion dollar bill, she said.

"If you drop it and somebody else picks it up, it's theirs," she said.

Next, secure the ticket in a safe place such as a bank security deposit box, Gentry said.

By all means, keep a low profile until you hire a financial planner or attorney or accountant — or all of the above. This team will help shield you from what is sure to be an onslaught of investment people and charities as well as Uncle Ned who you haven't seen in 30 years but suddenly needs money, said Susan Quigley, a certified financial planner in Garden City.

"Step back and don't publicize it, because sadly all the relatives you never knew you had will come out, with their hands out," said Quigley, who manages the finances of several people who came into big money quickly.

She suggested hiring an accountant and an attorney, as well as a financial planner to "coordinate the other two." The history of lottery winners is littered with numerous people who ended up broke, financially and emotionally.

You'll have the desire to make some big decisions right away. Fight that urge, she said. Don't up and quit your job right off the bat, or make major purchases such as a house.

If you win the big payout, those decisions may well come later. But Quigley worries about those people who win, say, a million dollars and jump into a new life.

"A million dollars, especially in New York, is not the game-changer it used to be," she said. "What's the use of buying an expensive house if you can't afford the property taxes?"

Don't feel rushed, and don't let anyone make you feel rushed, she said.

In New York State, a winner has as long as a year to claim the prize, said state Gaming Commission spokesman Brad Maione. Considering the amount of money at stake, you should not go back to the place from where you bought the ticket . Go to a regional lottery office instead, such as the one in Plainview, Maione said .

Before you can claim your winnings, the state is going to run a security background check on you to see whether you owe any back taxes or child support, he said. Also, if you’ve received public assistance within the past 10 years, state law will require you to pay it back in full.

While some states allow big winners to remain anonymous, New York isn't one of them. So plan on having your name put out on a news release and it's possible you may have to make a public appearance at a ceremony where you'll receive that big cardboard check, Maione said.

After that, things can get dicey, Quigley said. 

"If your face is on the front page of Newsday for this, your name will be on every scammer's list," she said.

She recommended investing in some identity theft protection.

You'll also have to decide whether you want to take the jackpot in installments over several years, or opt for the one-time payout. Quigley has mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, she favors being in control of the money from the outset. But if you have a lot of greedy relatives, it might be easier to have the money arrive in smaller amounts every year, she said.

You'll also have to learn how to say no to many of the people, charities and wannabe investment partners who hit you up for money, she said. 

"I always say to my clients, 'Make me the bad guy,' " Quigley said. Send people to your financial adviser. "I become the buffer."

Here are some tips on what to do if you with the big lottery:

  • Sign the back of the ticket.
  • Don’t jump into big decisions, such as quitting your job or buying a house.
  • Take a few weeks to let it sink in.
  • Seek professional help — whether that’s an accountant, lawyer or financial planner, or all three.
  • Keep a low profile, at least until you have a team of professionals in place.
  • Watch out for wannabe business partners, charities, and relatives who suddenly need money.
  • Get some identity theft protection.

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