If you have ever dreamed of winning the lottery and using the proceeds to make a new life for yourself, you had better be single. A recent court case here in Pennsylvania held that a man who hit the road after hitting the jackpot has to hand over half of his winnings to his on-again, off-again girlfriend. The case highlights an aspect of Pennsylvania law that can haunt unmarried couples when they split up.
In February 2018, Jeffrey Jones and Ruthann Colachino, an unmarried couple, were back together for the time being. Their relationship ran hot and cold, but they were trying to work things out since they had a child together.
The couple decided that Jones would claim their child as a dependent on his taxes that year, and file as head of household, which would yield a $5,500 refund. Colachino was okay with this plan so long as they split the refund.
When the refund arrived, the couple headed to a local convenience store and invested in some “Bingo Squared” lottery tickets. They returned home and began scratching, and Jones discovered he was holding a $100,000 winner! Court testimony reveals both parties were exclaiming “we won!” and talking about buying a house together.
However, a week after cashing in the winning ticket, Jones broke up with Colachino. She then sued Jones for her share of the prize money.
A Joint Venture
The trial court ruled that the former couple, who frequently bought lottery tickets together when they were dating, were part of a joint venture. Jones appealed. The appellate court ultimately agreed with the lower court, and ordered Jones to give Colachino half of the winnings.
The appellate court explained that the couple’s lottery ticket buying was indeed a joint venture. “Under Pennsylvania law, a joint venture is a ‘special combination of two or more people where, in some specific venture, a profit is jointly sought without any actual partnership or corporate designation.’”
There are four factors the court looks for when determining if a joint venture exists:
- each party to the venture must make a contribution, not necessarily of capital, but by way of services, skill, knowledge, materials or money;
- profits must be shared among the parties;
- joint proprietary interest and right of mutual control over the subject matter of the enterprise; and
- a single business transaction rather than a general and continuous transaction.
The court went through these factors as it reviewed video evidence of the ticket purchase, testimony from the clerk that regularly sold the couple lottery tickets, and testimony from Colachino’s older daughter who heard the couple making plans for the money. The court also noted that it was unclear if Jones or Colachino had actually purchased the winning ticket since both of them bought tickets in separate transactions the night they scratched their way to wealth.
Unmarried Couples Take Note
At the Law Office of Gary R. Swavely, Jr., we practice both family law and business law, and this case shows how the line between the two is sometimes blurred. Whether you are married or not, you may end up splitting assets with your former partner if you decide to go your separate ways. If this is something you want to try and avoid, our team would be happy to advise you of your options.