04/05/2012 06:45 am ET Updated Jun 05, 2012

All Is Fair in Love, Not Lottery

Something strange happens when a loved one dies and it's time to distribute the estate. No matter how close people are, money has the ability to widen wedges and force family members apart. Regardless of how those assets are distributed, someone will inevitably feel slighted. In death, there are few circumstances like the reading of a will as appropriate for the adage, "Life is unfair."

That sense of unfairness continues long after the memorial program gathers dust in a forgotten drawer. How the estate is distributed can cause siblings to stop speaking to one another for years. The assets needn't be large; a picture, a vase, a piece of costume jewelry is all it takes to trigger an almost feral defense of territory. At the possibility of financial windfall, the most mature adult can suddenly be possessed by an adamant 2-year-old shouting, "Mine!"

The current Mega Millions lottery is a bit more substantial than a vase or a piece of costume jewelry and it's already provoking that territorial "Mine!" reaction. There is a woman who works at a Maryland McDonald's claiming to hold one of the three winning tickets for the $656 million payout. She says that even though she bought lottery tickets for a work pool, the winning ticket is one she bought only for herself. Her co-workers aren't buying it and claim they're entitled to a share. Of course, the woman has yet to produce said winning ticket, and lottery officials aren't convinced she's even got it. Either way, I'd venture to guess she's just turned that particular McDonald's into her own hostile work environment.

This whole "I bought a bunch of tickets for everyone but the winning ticket is mine!" strategy has been tried before. Just a couple of weeks ago, a man who claimed the same "Mine!" defense was ordered by a judge to share $20 million of his winnings with co-workers who took him to court. This "Mine!" man was a bit cleverer than the Maryland woman. As soon as he realized he had a winning ticket, he called in to work to say he'd hurt his foot and then failed to return, saying nothing about winning. His coworkers tracked him down on a list of lottery winners, finding out he'd cashed in the $38.5 million ticket, taking a lump sum $24 million payout. He's got a lot less now.

A couple of years ago, a group of city employees from Piqua, Ohio won a lottery and had to fight off a court challenge by some of their fellow workers who felt slighted in the monetary distribution. These slighted workers felt they were entitled to a share just like everyone else, even though they technically didn't put in any money on the winning ticket, claiming there was an unspoken pact that if any of the many tickets purchased over the years paid out, "We're all out of here." The left-out workers ended up dismissing their suit, opting to try to settle out of court. No word on how that went, which I assume wasn't well.

Anecdotal evidence abounds about lottery winners hitting it big, living life large and ending up flat broke or worse. There was even a study done by the University of Kentucky, the University of Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt University that showed winning the lottery isn't all it's cracked up to be for some. Apparently, regular people who receive windfalls of cash don't always know how to handle it and end up making poor decisions. In the article I read, one man who won $16 million, Will "Bud" Post, blew it all on houses, vehicles and bad business ventures. He even did jail time for firing a shotgun at a bill collector. He died in 2006, but not before going bankrupt. I wonder how the settlement of his estate, with whatever was left, went among the heirs, and if any of them are still speaking to each other.

For more by Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.