"A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on."
Kelly Phillips Erb a/k/a Tax Girl drolly described this recent Tax Court case on her blog for Forbes. Mr. Seward was a regular customer at the Waffle House in Grand Bay, Alabama. From time to time he would buy lottery tickets in Florida that he would share with friends and give as tips to employees at the Waffle House. (Lotteries are illegal in Alabama.) Waffle House waitress Tonda Lynn Dickerson received a lottery ticket from Mr. Seward as a tip. Tonda Lynn’s ticket from Mr. Seward won $10 million (paid over 30 years or $5 million as a lump sum) in the Florida lottery.
The other Waffle House employees claimed there was a standing verbal agreement to share any lottery winnings among them; and further, it was agreed that the winner would buy Mr. Seward a new pickup truck.
That’s not the way Tonda remembered it. She didn’t share her winnings with her co-workers. Her co-workers and Mr. Seward sued her for breach of contract and fraud. The good news for the co-workers was that the court held that there was an oral agreement to share winnings. The bad news was that, under Alabama law, contracts related to gambling (illegal in Alabama and including playing in lotteries) are unenforceable. Ouch. Your typical Pyrrhic victory – winning the battle and losing the war.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Tonda Lynn was doing some tax planning for her winnings. She formed an S corporation called 9 Mill, Inc. along with some members of her family. When claiming the winnings, Tonda signed the ticket in the corporation’s name. Tonda Lynn retained 49% of the stock in 9 Mill, Inc. and her parents and siblings split the remaining 51% of stock.
Enter Toya Sue Washington, an attorney with the Estate and Gift Tax Division of the IRS. Toya Sue looked at the transactions involving the corporation and transfer of ownership to family members and determined in 2007, quite rightly in my opinion, that Tonda Lynn had made taxable gifts. Toya Sue assessed Tonda Lynn $771,570 in gift tax.
Tonda Lynn challenged the IRS assessment. Her theory? She said that she and her family had an agreement that if any one of them ever won the lottery, they would share it. Sound familiar? The result? The Tax Court held that even if the family did have an agreement, just like the agreement with co-workers at the Waffle House, it would be unenforceable under the same state law that found that similar agreement to be a contract related to gambling and, thus, unenforceable. One has to wonder why she thought there would be a different result this time around.
It wasn’t a complete loss at Tax Court though. Even though Tonda Lynn was found to have made a gift, the value of the gift was discounted because at the time of the transfer, her claim was publicly embroiled in litigation with the Waffle House co-workers and Mr. Seward. Therefore, the value of 80% of the prize (the part subject to suit) was discounted 67% because of the cost, hazard and time delay of litigation. The result from the Tax Court (T.C.) is that the value of the gift was discounted 53.6%. The tax court decision came down 13 years to the day from the date of the winning ticket.
The opinion in T.C. Memo 2012-60 written by Judge Wherry is worth reading. Here are the section headings in the Findings of Fact: I. She’s Got a Ticket To Ride; II. Family Values; III. "Inc."-ing the Deal; IV. Eye on the Booty; V. House of Waffling; and VI. Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth.
That’s not all. Before her big win, Tonda Lynn Dickerson had been married to a man named Stacy Martin, but she and Martin divorced before she won the $10 million. After she won the lawsuits brought by the co-workers and Mr. Seward, Tonda’s ex forced his way into Tonda’s pickup truck and drove her from Grand Bay across the state line to Jackson, Mississippi. Once there, Tonda pulled out a .22 caliber pistol from her purse, shot and wounded her abductor. Tonda was not charged, and Martin was expected to be charged with kidnaping.