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How much money is not claimed in the lottery?

Every year, millions of dollars in lottery prizes go unclaimed. This is money that could change someone’s life, yet the winning tickets are lost, forgotten, or never redeemed for various reasons. Just how much lottery money actually goes unclaimed might surprise you.

Why lottery prizes go unclaimed

There are a few common reasons why winning lottery tickets are not turned in to be claimed:

  • Lost tickets – Winning tickets that are lost or accidentally thrown away. Without the ticket, players have no proof they won.
  • Forgotten tickets – Some players forget they have a winning ticket stashed away somewhere. The ticket may sit in a wallet or drawer for months until it expires.
  • Not checking numbers – Players don’t always check their numbers after a drawing. If they don’t check, they don’t know they’ve won.
  • Don’t understand the prize – Players might not realize they’ve won a prize if it’s not the jackpot. Lesser prizes have to be claimed too.
  • Avoiding publicity – Winners of big jackpots might avoid coming forward to keep their privacy.
  • Tickets not registered – Most state lotteries require tickets to be registered to claim prizes. Unregistered tickets cannot be claimed.
  • Can’t locate winner – Lotteries might not be able to track down and locate the winner within the required time frame.
  • Won on invalid ticket – Prizes won on stolen, fake, or otherwise invalid tickets cannot be claimed.

As you can see, there are many circumstances where lottery prizes are lost rather than claimed. This results in millions in unclaimed money each year.

How much unclaimed money comes from big jackpots?

You might think all unclaimed lottery money comes from people forgetting to check their tickets or losing them. However, even huge mega million and billion dollar jackpots can go unclaimed in rare instances.

One of the biggest unclaimed jackpots was a $77 million prize from a 2011 Mega Millions drawing. The ticket was sold in Georgia but never turned in. 11 months later, the state used the unclaimed money to fund scholarships and education initiatives.

Another was a $63 million 2002 Mega Millions jackpot won in New York. The winner never surfaced to claim their prize within the required 1 year time limit, so the money went back into the prize pool for future drawings.

While rare, any jackpot prize can potentially go unclaimed if the winner doesn’t turn in the ticket in time. But those big prizes account for a relatively small portion of total unclaimed lottery funds.

How much unclaimed money comes from smaller prizes?

Unlike huge jackpot windfalls, smaller dollar prizes frequently become unclaimed money. These can be prizes worth anywhere from a free ticket up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some common sources for unclaimed lower tier lottery prizes include:

  • Free tickets – Many conditional “free ticket” prizes are never redeemed by players.
  • $1, $5, $10 prizes – Small dollar scratchers and online game prizes are often forgotten about.
  • $50 – $1,000 prizes – Minor prizes like these are not always claimed even though they can add up fast.
  • $10,000 – $100,000 – Mid-tier prize ranges yield lots of unclaimed winnings.

Experts estimate over 99% of all unclaimed lottery prizes fall into one of these lower prize brackets. While big jackpots grab all the headlines, it’s the small and mid-sized winners that make up most of the unclaimed money.

Which states are “worst” at unclaimed lottery money?

Some states have much higher rates of unclaimed lottery prizes than others. This may be influenced by factors like smaller populations, prize expiration dates, and how aggressively lotteries follow up to locate winners.

Historically, the “worst” states at unclaimed lottery money are:

State Unclaimed Amount
Indiana $295 million
Pennsylvania $250 million
Missouri $200 million
South Carolina $174 million

States with smaller populations like South Dakota and Washington D.C. also tend to have very high per capita rates of unclaimed lottery prizes.

Which states are “best” at minimizing unclaimed prizes?

On the flip side, some states have strong records when it comes to minimizing unclaimed lottery funds. This is often achieved through aggressive advertising, tracking down winners, and requiring registration of high-tier prizes.

States with the lowest rates of unclaimed lottery money are:

State Unclaimed Amount
Wisconsin $4 million
Washington $5 million
Oregon $6 million

Perennial lottery leaders like Massachusetts and New Jersey also score well. Their decades of experience help minimize unclaimed prizes.

How is unclaimed lottery money used by states?

State law dictates how unclaimed lottery funds can be used. Common uses include:

  • Returned to prize pools – Added to future jackpots or drawings.
  • General state funds – Contributes to the state’s overall budget.
  • Public schools – Provides extra funding for education initiatives.
  • Retailer bonuses – Rewards retailers who sold winning tickets.
  • Gambling programs – Funds programs to treat problem gambling.

Some states like California allow unclaimed lottery prizes to revert back to public education funds. Other states return the money to the specific game’s prize pool to boost future payouts.

Total unclaimed prizes by year

It’s estimated $2.5 billion worth of lottery prizes went unclaimed in the U.S. in 2022. That’s an astronomical amount of money never making it into the hands of the rightful winners.

Here’s a look at the total dollar value of unclaimed U.S. lottery prizes over the past several years:

Year Total Unclaimed Amount
2018 $1.89 billion
2019 $2.24 billion
2020 $2.49 billion
2021 $2.15 billion
2022 $2.50 billion

Those numbers may fluctuate up and down from year to year based on the volume of lottery ticket sales and prizes offered.

Notable trends

We can spot some trends in the total unclaimed figures over the past 5 years:

  • Consistently over $2 billion per year is not claimed
  • The total unclaimed amount rose steadily from 2018 – 2020
  • 2021 saw a dip in unclaimed prizes due to reduced lottery sales during the pandemic
  • 2022 bounced back, exceeding $2.5 billion unclaimed

While no one can predict exactly how much will go unclaimed in a given year, we can expect it to range in the billions of dollars based on historical data.

Odds of winning unclaimed prizes

Learning about how much lottery money goes unclaimed each year may have you dreaming about winning one of those outstanding prizes.

While it does happen, your overall odds are extremely long. With over 292 million lottery tickets sold every single day in the U.S., your chances of winning any unclaimed prize are about 1 in 175 million.

You can slightly improve your odds by:

  • Playing less popular games
  • Buying tickets from states with higher unclaimed rates
  • Focusing on lower tier prizes

But even then, your chances of scoring an unclaimed lottery jackpot remain astronomically low. A little luck certainly wouldn’t hurt!

Famous cases of unclaimed prizes

While most unclaimed lottery prizes fade into obscurity, some have gained public notoriety over the years.

Here are a few famous cases of unclaimed lottery millions:

  • California SuperLotto Plus (2003) – Winning ticket worth $63 million went unclaimed. Video footage showed the elderly winner lost his ticket after purchasing it.
  • Kansas 2by2 (2005) – A $1 million winning 2by2 ticket was never cashed in. Surveillance video showed the winner leaving the ticket on the lottery counter.
  • Colorado Lotto (2006) – Security cameras captured a man losing his $68,000 winning ticket as he left the store. Despite lottery ads, it was never claimed.
  • Oregon Megabucks (2012) – Winner had a $14.5 million ticket but apparently put it through the wash. The ruined ticket could not be processed despite the lottery’s efforts.

The public tunes in whenever headlines are made about someone losing a winning ticket or not cashing in. Even if you aren’t the winner, an unclaimed prize is always a heartbreaking story.

Should lottery rules be changed?

There is occasional debate around whether lottery rules should be changed to reduce unclaimed prizes. Two of the most discussed changes are:

  • No expiration dates – Some feel winners should have unlimited time to claim prizes. About 20 U.S. lotteries require tickets to be claimed within 180 days.
  • Publicize names – Releasing winner identities could help locate people who lose tickets or don’t realize they’ve won.

However, rules are unlikely to change anytime soon. Lotteries want to keep unclaimed money flowing for their state budgets. And winner anonymity will always take priority over getting tickets claimed.

Tips to avoid losing your winning ticket

The horror stories of big lottery prizes going unclaimed can help you avoid the same fate. Here are some tips to remember:

  • Sign your lottery ticket as soon as you buy it
  • Take a clear photo or photocopy for records
  • Confirm the drawing dates and prize claim deadlines
  • Store tickets safely in a drawer, envelope or safe
  • Never keep tickets in your wallet or car
  • Sign up for winner email alerts in your state
  • Retailer scanners can instantly validate prizes
  • Always double-check your numbers after a drawing

Following these tips will help prevent you from misplacing or accidentally destroying any potential winning tickets.

Could more unclaimed money be returned to players?

Lottery officials face public pressure to redirect more unclaimed funds back to players rather than state budgets. However, there is rarely political motivation to make such changes.

More money flowing back into prize pools, rather than state reserves, would likely:

  • Increase jackpots, generating more ticket sales
  • Add more lower and mid-tier prize winners
  • Increase player loyalty to that state’s lottery

But it seems unlikely states will willingly give up billions in unclaimed lottery revenue. The lure of big jackpots already entices enough players as is.

The psychological impact of winning “lost” money

Winning an unclaimed lottery prize has a different psychological effect than winning a normal prize. When you win unclaimed money, it feels like you’re getting “free” or “found” money.

Psychologists point out several mental impacts of landing an unclaimed prize:

  • Reduced guilt – Didn’t have to lose for you to win, so less regret.
  • More gratitude – More thankful for an unexpected windfall.
  • Increased optimism – Reinforces belief in good fortune and luck.
  • Reduced planning – Less prepared both strategically and emotionally.

Winners of unclaimed money may be less likely to manage it responsibly or plan for tax implications. But they’ll enjoy heightened optimism and reduced lottery loser’s guilt.

Can lottery prizes become forfeited?

Legally, lottery prizes can never be “forfeited” back to the state. They must be won by either the original ticket holder or nobody at all. States are obligated to keep trying to locate potential winners.

If a prize goes unclaimed past its expiration date, the money can only be used according to state law. But the state cannot legally claim ownership or profit from it.

The only exception is if a prize winner is disqualified. This could occur if they obtained the ticket illegally or don’t meet eligibility rules. In rare cases, states have tried to claim winnings of ineligible players but courts have ruled against it.


Unclaimed lottery prizes totaling billions of dollars each year are an intriguing mystery. Why do so many potential life-changing jackpots go abandoned?

While rules and procedures vary by state, the reasons winning tickets go unclaimed tend to follow similar themes. Lost and forgotten tickets, confusion over prizes, and expiration dates all play roles.

Some unclaimed prizes like huge Powerball jackpots capture national attention. But it’s the multitude of smaller prizes that make up the bulk of unclaimed money.

State lotteries face increasing pressure to redirect more of these lost funds back into prize pools for players. However, the appeal of extra revenue for state budgets makes that unlikely.

The next time you buy a lottery ticket, take extra care not to lose it or miss drawings. With billions in prizes unclaimed annually, a fortune could be sitting in your hands.