Getting an Inheritance Or Winning the Lottery Can Create Serious Emotional and Financial Challenges

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  • Coming into a lot of money can be difficult for most people to handle.
  • Financial advisors say the newly rich should do nothing at first except speak to a tax professional about what they'll owe Uncle Sam.
  • After waiting for a while, consult a financial advisor and other experts to come up with a plan to make your newfound wealth sustainable.

Money, for all the opportunities it affords, can be a major source of stress and anxiety if you're not used to having it.

Coming into sudden wealth, whether via inheritance, a career windfall or luck in the lottery, can create serious emotional and financial challenges for people who have not had a lot of money in their lives.

"Will you continue to work? Buy a new home; private school for the kids?" said Barry Glassman, a certified financial planner and founder and president of Glassman Wealth Services, in Vienna, Virginia. "Sudden wealth offers greater choices, but it can cause a lot of problems and anxiety because of the sheer number of decisions to make."

Consider professional athletes. Research by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2015 found that 15.7% of NFL players had filed for bankruptcy within 12 years of retirement, despite many of them making millions of dollars in their careers. A staggering 78% of retired football players were in serious financial distress just two years after leaving the game, according to Sports Illustrated. The statistics were only slightly better for pro basketball players.

Young athletes who become millionaires overnight aren't the only ones to struggle with good fortune. People who receive large sums of money very often experience hardships in managing it well. So, what should you do if you're the beneficiary of a windfall?

"Don't do anything for a good year," said Sheryl Garrett, a CFP and founder of the Garrett Planning Network in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. "Don't call a financial advisor and don't tell people details about it, with the exception of talking to a good tax attorney."

Glassman has the same advice. "Don't buy anything, don't make any investments and don't pay down debts," he said. "You can make those decisions in a few month.

"The one thing to do with urgency is meet with tax professionals to discuss the taxability of your windfall and tax compliance in your new circumstances."

There will, of course, be many decisions to make, many of them very happy ones. However, a large sum of money will almost certainly present some emotional challenges for people not used to having significant wealth.

Tales of the woes of lottery winners are true. Big money can change the expectations that family and friends have of you and can seriously challenge close relationships.

"When it comes to money, someone within a circle of family and friends will have problems," Garrett said. "It could be the receiver of the windfall, or it could be a brother-in-law who feels he deserves some of it.

"People get greedy," she added.

Garrett also cautions people to beware of the illusion of large numbers. A situation she sees frequently involves clients offered a buyout of their defined benefit pensions. People offered a $400,000 payout versus a $2,500 per month payment for the rest of their lives usually take the lump sum even if the monthly payment makes more financial sense.

"We have a bias to think that large sums of money will last a long time," Garrett said. "There is so much motivation to take the big lump sum and so much that wants to part us from that money."

Even people who experience much larger windfalls face challenges managing it effectively. Glassman has clients who have sold businesses for millions, and they too buy things and make investments that drain their wealth in the long run.

"I had a client who came into $15 million after selling his business," he recalled. "He carved out $4 million to buy real estate and was left with $11 million and $100,000 in new annual expenses."

Not that you shouldn't buy a house, car or boat for yourself or for someone else if that is what you really want. The problem with sudden good fortune is not spending money too quickly, lavishing family and friends with gifts or making poor investments. It is not ensuring that your newfound wealth is sustainable. In other words, you need a financial plan.

After "doing nothing" and consulting a certified public accountant, your next step should be finding a good financial advisor to help you manage your wealth and make sure that it lasts.

"The challenge is to prioritize what is important to you," Glassman said. "You may want to pay off student loans, or buy a house for Mom or a motorcycle for yourself.

"It typically can't be everything," he added. "A good financial advisor will help you think through those priorities and make the money work to help achieve your goals."

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