A line from a 1990s Alanis Morisette song crooned:
An old man, turned 98, he won the lottery and died the next day. Isn’t it ironic?
[Editor’s note: It is suggested that Alanis does not understand what irony is].
In a recent Queensland Supreme Court case1, art literally imitated life.
On 13 February 2010, Lajos Szanto won the lottery. On 14 February 2010 he died.
The winning ticket was found in his home. The deceased was survived by his four children.
By his will the deceased gave:
- his furniture and chattels in his home to his daughter and son-in-law (clause 3); and
- he balance of his estate equally to his remaining three children (clause 4).
As the lottery ticket was kept in the deceased’s home, the question was whether the prize money would pass under clause 3 or 4 of the will. That is, was it part of the deceased’s furniture and chattels?
Is the lottery ticket a chattel?
The term “chattels” is one of the widest words known to the law in relation to personal property. In this matter, the deceased’s entitlement to the prize moneywass a chose in action.
Whilst choses in action can be included in the term “chattels”, there is a general principle that a gift of chattels in a house does not necessarily include choses in action because a chose in action has no locality.
The lottery ticket purchased by the deceased remained the property of the lottery operator and entitled the deceased to participate in the draw. If the lottery ticket became a winning ticket, then the lottery operator may pay a prize if the winning ticket is produced. The winning lottery ticket gave the deceased the right to claim the prize money (ie: a chose in action) which means that on the face of it, the winning ticket fell within the general principle.
However, the gift of chattels in this case provided a limitation as to locality - ie: chattels in his home.
The court held that the rights the deceased had in relation to the winning lotto ticket amounted to a chose in action. As that was incorporeal property – that is, it does not have a material body or form and consequently, cannot have a locality.
As a result, the rights the deceased had did not fall within clause 3 of the will and the prize money formed part of the balance of the deceased’s estate.
Care with the drafting and construction of wills
This case raises the importance of taking care with the wording and construction of wills. Whilst the windfall of winning the lottery is something that, generally, isn’t specifically dealt with or considered when preparing a will for a client, it is important to take a holistic and thorough approach when considering a client’s estate planning.