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An unexpected fortune

A Floral City man won millions in the Florida Lottery in May. But his estranged wife didn't know until Tuesday.

By JIM ROSS and BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2000


INVERNESS -- Although Cecil Smith won $2.4-million from the Florida Lottery in late May, he still doesn't know how much he gets to keep.

The tax man will take his share, probably about $1-million. That's for sure.

But what about Smith's estranged wife, Carolyn?

The Smiths are divorcing after six years of marriage. Paperwork was filed but the dissolution isn't final.

Does Mrs. Smith have a legal claim to a substantial portion of the jackpot?

Her husband says no.

Smith bought the ticket long after Mrs. Smith filed her divorce petition and their separation was definite. Thus, he thinks the ticket -- and the winnings -- are non-marital assets.

His lawyer agrees.

Mrs. Smith will have a chance to challenge that opinion, if she wishes, during a long-scheduled meeting Friday with her husband and their attorneys.

She will need that much time to recover from the surprise she got Tuesday.

Cecil Smith didn't tell his estranged wife about his winning ticket. He planned to tell her Friday, he said, at the meeting with the lawyers.

Lottery officials inadvertently foiled the plan.

Smith traveled to Tallahassee on Monday to officially claim his prize. He waited a month because he wanted to get his financial affairs in order. The lottery staff, as is their custom, issued a news release Tuesday about Cecil Smith's good luck. A Times reporter who received that release called the Smith home -- she still lives there; he has moved out -- and asked Mrs. Smith for comment.

Lottery jackpot? What lottery jackpot?

"He wanted to keep it from me," she said.

"She's still in shock," Cecil Smith said later in the day, after he had visited her.

"We had to get our research," is how he explained the delay in telling Mrs. Smith. "I had to know where I stood."

Smith, 48, bought the ticket at the Island Food Store in Callahan, near Jacksonville. He had been driving from Savannah, Ga., to his home in Floral City, a small town south of Inverness.

The winning numbers, a quick-pick combination, were 9-14-16-28-37-38.

On May 21, Smith learned that he held the sole winning ticket for the May 20 drawing. He told a friend.

"We just sat on the porch all day staring at" the ticket, Smith later told lottery officials.

Smith chose to receive a $2.4-million lump sum instead of $5-million over 30 years. He quickly called his buddies, his broker -- and his divorce lawyer.

They reviewed the facts: Mrs. Smith filed a divorce petition in nearby Marion County in late March. Cecil Smith filed a counterclaim in early May. A judge has been reviewing the case and making preliminary rulings about their assets.

Cecil Smith hadn't purchased the winning ticket until May 20, long after the petition was filed, the separation was certain and the assets were under review.

"I believe it's 100 percent mine," Smith said of the winnings.

Cecil Smith said he did not want the divorce, but was willing to give his wife what she wanted. The couple have no children.

Stann Givens is a Tampa attorney who is chairman of the Florida Bar's committee on marital and family law certification. Although not involved in the case, Givens said that generally speaking, Florida courts have ruled that money earned after a spouse files for divorce is not considered a marital asset.

In this case, he said, it seems Cecil Smith bought the ticket with money he earned after the divorce papers were filed. The ticket money -- and everything that stems from it -- would seem to be non-marital assets.

However, when setting an alimony amount, the courts may consider all of Cecil Smith's income, including the interest from the lottery winnings, Givens said.

"I'm investing every dime of it," Smith said of the winnings.

He also is quitting his job with a machine manufacturing firm and is planning numerous fishing trips with pal Gary Sieg.

Smith said Florida Lottery officials told him the news only would be released in Callahan, the small town where he bought the ticket. He said he didn't want publicity about the win in Citrus County, especially not before he told Mrs. Smith.

Lottery spokesman Leo DiBenigno said that all winners are told that basic information about their win will be shared with the media. Some winners sign a release and give more details and even permission for a photo.

Smith did both, DiBenigno said.

* * *

As far as legal precedents, the Smiths might look south.

Bernice Heslop and Ernest Moore had been separated, but still legally married, for five years when she won the lottery. The jackpot was marital property, even though Heslop didn't claim the money until after the divorce, a judge in Miami-Dade County ruled last year.

A non-jury trial is scheduled for July 10 to determine how much money, if any, Heslop will have to share with Moore. Attorneys were scheduled for a mediation conference this week.

Smith said he isn't certain whether his wife and her lawyer will mount a legal challenge.

"They shouldn't," he said Tuesday. "But that doesn't mean it isn't going to go to court."

-- Times staff writer Jounice Nealy contributed to this report.

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