People Who Became Millionaires Overnight (and What They Did With the Money)


In his book "Money for Nothing: One Man's Journey Through the Dark Side of Lottery Millions," Edward Ugel wrote that many lottery winners were happier before they became millionaires. He should know. His job was to buy lotto winners' annuities for a fraction of their value, giving shortsighted winners a quick hit of cash and thereby helping them pour the bulk of their money down the drain. In fact, the National Foundation for Financial Education estimates that 70% of people who suddenly come into large amounts of money lose it within a few years.

Even overnight millionaires who don't sign away their money often end up unhappy; stories of legal trouble, greedy friends and family, and even tragic deaths are chock-a-block.

But are all instant millionaires doomed to misery? Here's a look at a number of folks who made a quick fortune, what they bought, and how things turned out for them.

The Tragedies

It is so common for lottery winners to suffer tragedies that the Web is full of lists like Time's collection of Unluckiest Lottery Winners, which includes Chicago's Urooj Khan, who was poisoned right after receiving his check. Here are a few to consider.

Mistaken Identity

Name: Kevin Lewis

How he got rich: Someone with the same name won a drawing

What he spent it on: Paying other people's bills

In August 2013, a curious story hit the media: A Cincinnati casino ended up giving away not one but two million-dollar grand prizes when it initially awarded a giant check to someone with the same name as the intended winner.

The “wrong” Kevin Lewis, the one who hadn't won but got to keep the prize anyway, seemed like the luckiest man alive at that moment. Less than a year later, however, his luck had run out. He ended up before a judge on drug charges, having spent the money, he told the court, paying other people's bills. He got two years' probation.

Biggest Jackpot, Biggest Meltdown

Name: Jack Whittaker

How he got rich: Lottery winner

What he spent it on: Spoiling his granddaughter, gambling, strip clubs, lawsuits, a Hummer, charity

Jack Whittaker of West Virginia was already a millionaire from his construction business when he won a $314 million Powerball jackpot in 2002 — at that time the largest undivided jackpot in history. He said he planned to give much of his winnings to charity and avoid changing his life. He did give to charity, but instead of remaining unchanged, he completely disintegrated before the public. He got arrested for drunken driving and was sued for assault, and he lost millions to casinos, lawsuits, robberies, and strip clubs. Ultimately he lost the people he loved most — the teenage granddaughter whom he'd vowed to spoil when he accepted his winnings died of a drug overdose, his wife divorced him, and his daughter died. Whittaker eventually said he wished he'd torn up his winning ticket.

Queen of the Castle

Name: Michelle Heimburger

How she got rich: Stock options

What she spent it on: Haunted hometown castle

In 1999, I was a 20-something from the Midwest, working as a Web surfer for a small San Francisco Internet company. One day I picked up the San Jose Mercury News to read that someone my age, with the same job as me, but at another company, had become so wealthy on stock options that she was able to buy a reportedly haunted castle in her Midwestern hometown. A castle! It would be understating the case to say I was jealous that Michelle Heimburger happened to work for Yahoo!, while the company I signed on with had a less-impressive IPO.

Press accounts do not specify if Heimburger's stock option wealth ran into the millions, but it is known that the 26-year-old was able to pay $350,000 cash for Cleveland's Franklin Castle, which she hoped to turn into a bed and breakfast. She hosted at least a couple parties there with hundreds of guests.

Things went downhill fast just after the first Halloween — but it wasn't any of the spooks reputed to reside in the mansion that soured the mood. While Heimburger worked on the West Coast, someone snuck into the castle and set it on fire, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. It was insured, but repairs did not proceed swiftly, perhaps because the economy tanked, or perhaps because of the owner's distance from the property. The castle remained boarded up for years, and by 2006, Heimburger was in danger of foreclosure, owing thousands in back taxes and construction fees. The building had no running water, which didn't stop the caretaker who lived in the carriage house from marketing it as a members-only club, or from pitching a reality ghost hunting/renovation show.

Heimburger sold the house for $260,000 in 2011 to a developer who wanted to split it up into several units, much to the relief of neighbors, who were fed up with the squatters. Heimburger now lives in London as a writer, editor and illustrator — not a tragic outcome, but still, her dreams of running a spooky B&B were unrealized.

The Wise Ones

In contrast to the spectacular meltdowns, those who spend sudden windfalls wisely — or rather than spending them, invest them — don't tend to make headlines. Their stories are frankly boring in comparison.

You Can't Take It With You

Name: Oscar and Lorene Stohler

How they got rich: Oil

What they spent it on: A house, a sprinkler system, a ring, trust funds for kids

Oscar and Lorene Stohler were ranchers in their 80s whose North Dakota property turned out to be sitting on oil. They became millionaires and kept on driving their old pickup truck, protesting that they liked their old stuff too much to replace it. Maybe they should have been less modest — Oscar died in 2013, sounding from his obituary like a man who was truly unchanged by millionaire status. Neither the oil nor the money was mentioned at all.

Million Dollar Lawnmower Man

Name: Dave Gehle

How he got rich: Won the lottery

What he spent it on: Travel, new snowblower, car

After sharing a $365 million jackpot (then the largest PowerBall jackpot) in 2006, Dave Gehle has reportedly led a quiet life of dating, mowing lawns, and snowplowing for his Lincoln, Nebraska, neighbors. Two of his coworkers who shared the jackpot ended up marrying each other — in a small, probably inexpensive wedding. Ho hum.

Double — or Quadruple — Your Treasure

Names: Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss

How they got rich: $20 million settlement from Mark Zuckerberg after their lawsuit accusing him of stealing the idea for Facebook

What they spent it on: Bitcoins

The Winklevii, as the identical twins are known, were widely mocked in April 2013 when they spent $11 million on the cryptocurrency Bitcoin — its price collapsed soon after. But their detractors probably aren't laughing now, when the price is nearly four times what they paid. The twins are now said to hold 1% of all bitcoins in existence, and while the Internet currency is still highly volatile, some experts expect its value to grow much more. (See also: What You Should Know About Bitcoin)

What would you do with a sudden windfall? Spend modestly and invest prudently? Or would you cave in to temptation and spend prodigiously? Please share your winnings in comments!

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