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Diana L. Courson

Share of $17 Million Lottery Winning Is Awarded to Separated Wife of Gambler

May 2, 2000

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently affirmed a judgment that DC partner Peter R. Kolker obtained for Sandy Ware, a litigant in an unusual divorce case. (Ware v. Ware, 131 Md. App. 207, 748 A.2d. 1031, decided March 30, 2000). The court's judgment was doubly satisfying because it not only ensured the client a favorable outcome in a difficult case but also distinguished a prior judgment from the state's highest court, which seemed at first to block the result.

In late 1995 Sandy Ware and her husband, Ronnie Ware, separated after a four-year marriage. Both earned only modest incomes, flirting with credit catastrophe and bankruptcy as gambling debts piled on top of credit card debt. Then, four months after the separation, Ronnie selected the winning number for the Powerball lottery, winning a 20-year annuity with a gross payout of $17 million. Would Sandy be entitled to a share, and if so, how much?

The answer to that question seemed easily found in a 1993 case, — Alston v. Alston, 331 Md. 496, 629 A.2d. 70 (1993) — in which the high court reversed the decisions of the trial and intermediate appellate court, which had awarded the wife half of the lottery winnings derived from a ticket purchased by the husband following separation. In Alston, the court stressed that the post-separation acquisition of the ticket meant that a 50/50 split was unwarranted. Indeed, the court stated, there seemed little evidence in the Alston record justifying any award to the wife.

But divorce cases, although superficially similar, are rarely comparable — particularly in the face of Peter's inspired advocacy. In the Ware case, the Court of Special Appeals noted that the parties, unlike Alston, had a continuing relationship despite their separation, fostered in part by the young child they jointly parented. The Ware court found that this continuing relationship supported the trial court's decision awarding Sandy Ware a share of each annual payment (free of taxes) as well as permanent alimony, child support, and attorney's fees. Needless to say, this decision has changed the client's life forever.