Skip to Content

What happens to unclaimed California Lottery money?

The California Lottery was established in 1984 when voters passed Proposition 37, allowing the state to operate a lottery. Since then, the California Lottery has contributed billions of dollars to California public schools and colleges. The money for education comes from lottery ticket sales. However, not all lottery prizes get claimed. What happens when someone wins the lottery but never comes forward to collect the money? Let’s take a closer look at how unclaimed lottery prizes are handled in California.

How often do California Lottery prizes go unclaimed?

Unclaimed lottery prizes are more common than you might think. According to the California Lottery, over $224 million in winning lottery tickets went unclaimed in fiscal year 2016-17. The fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30. That’s a staggering amount of prize money that was simply left on the table by forgetful, lost, or uninformed lottery players. The California Lottery estimates that 1 out of every 10 prizes worth $600 or more goes unclaimed each year.

Why do some lottery prizes go unclaimed?

There are several reasons why lottery winners may miss out on claiming their prizes:

Lost or misplaced tickets

It’s easy to lose old lottery tickets, especially if you play frequently or carry tickets in your wallet. Tickets can get accidentally thrown away, put through the wash, or misplaced in the chaos of a cluttered purse or car. Without the ticket, you can’t claim the prize.

Not checking numbers

Many players don’t bother to check their numbers after a drawing. They simply assume they didn’t win and toss the tickets. However, you can’t win if you don’t check. Even if the chance of winning is slim, the only way to know for sure is to compare your numbers.

Forgetting about purchases

If you buy lottery tickets for entertainment once in a while, you may simply forget that you ever played. Infrequent lottery players are more likely to miss claiming prizes on forgotten tickets.

Not understanding prize claim requirements

Lottery rules can be confusing. Some players don’t realize there are deadlines for claiming prizes and specific procedures that must be followed. Lack of understanding about how and when to claim prevents some winners from getting paid.

Avoiding public attention

For large jackpot prizes, lotteries often hold press conferences when the prize is claimed. Some big winners want to avoid the public spotlight and decide not to come forward, forfeiting the money.

Ticket owner passes away

Tragically, sometimes lottery winners pass away before claiming their prizes. If no one else knows about the ticket and it goes undiscovered, the prize can go unclaimed.

What is the deadline for claiming California Lottery prizes?

California Lottery winners must claim their prize within 180 days of the draw date printed on the ticket. If the 180th day falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or an official state holiday, then the claim deadline will be extended to the next business day.

For Scratchers games, the deadline is 180 days from the official end of that particular game. An unclaimed prize cannot be paid out past the claim deadline, even if you have a valid winning ticket. After 180 days, the prize money expires and is no longer available to be claimed.

Can expired prizes still be claimed?

Unfortunately, no. If a lottery prize goes unclaimed past the 180-day deadline, it can no longer be claimed by the original winner. Even if you come forward with the winning ticket, the California Lottery has no legal authority to pay out expired prizes.

The only situation in which an expired prize can still be claimed is if you sent in a claim that was postmarked or received by the lottery prior to the 180-day deadline. As long as you submitted your claim on time, the Lottery will still process your claim even if the paperwork takes longer than 180 days to finalize. But for tickets where no claim was initiated before the deadline, the prize is permanently unclaimable after 180 days.

What happens to unclaimed California Lottery prize money?

The California Lottery Act states that all unclaimed prize money must be returned to the public benefit. Specifically, any prize not claimed within the required 180-day timeframe is returned to the Lottery’s prize pool. The money goes back into the total funds available to be paid out for future prizes won by other players.

Think of unclaimed prizes as money left on the table that gets rolled over into the next round of gameplay. The expired prize money gets recycled directly back into the overall lottery system. So while an individual can no longer claim an expired prize, the cash does once again become available for other lottery participants to potentially win.

Unclaimed prizes help fund education

One way to look at unclaimed lottery prizes is that they ultimately help California schools and education. By law, the California Lottery returns at least 87 cents of every dollar spent on tickets back to the public in the form of contributions to education and prizes. When prize money goes unclaimed, those funds get added back into the money pool available for public education.

Over the lifetime of the lottery, about $6 billion in unclaimed prizes have gone to support California public schools and colleges. So while individual prize winners miss out when they don’t claim, that money still provides funding for students and teachers, just in an indirect way.

Has the amount of unclaimed lottery prizes changed over time?

Unclaimed lottery prizes have been an issue for the California Lottery since its beginnings nearly 40 years ago. However, the dollar amount of unclaimed prizes has increased substantially over the lottery’s lifetime. Here are the key trends:

First decade

In the lottery’s initial years, only about $1 million per year went unclaimed. With fewer games and lower jackpots, there were fewer opportunities for big prizes to be forgotten.


As the lottery expanded in the 1990s, unclaimed prizes grew to around $7 million per year. New games like Powerball brought larger jackpots.

21st century

Major growth in unclaimed prizes came after 2000 due to more games, bigger prizes, and more options for playing. The annual average amount unclaimed between 2000-2009 was $29.6 million.

Last decade

From 2010 to 2019, over $224 million in prizes went unclaimed each year on average. Higher jackpots and more lottery products resulted in dramatically higher unclaimed totals.

The nearly $225 million unclaimed in fiscal year 2016-2017 was the highest single-year amount on record for the California Lottery. Continued growth is expected in the years ahead as games evolve and prizes get larger.

Are lottery scams a problem related to unclaimed prizes?

Unfortunately, lottery scams are an issue that can deter people from claiming legitimate prizes. Scammers often target recent lottery winners, trying to trick them into paying an “advance fee” in order to receive their prize money. The scammers pocket the fee while the victim still doesn’t get their winnings.

Out of fear of being scammed, some real lottery winners decide not to come forward at all. While scams aren’t the sole cause of unclaimed prizes, they likely contribute to some winners’ reluctance to initiate the prize claiming process.

The California Lottery emphasizes that no fee is ever required to claim a prize. Beware of any offer that asks you to pay to receive lottery winnings. Legitimate lotteries will never require upfront fees of winners.

What efforts does the California Lottery make to reduce unclaimed prizes?

While a degree of unclaimed prizes is unavoidable, the California Lottery does make active efforts to minimize the amount of prizes that go uncollected each year:

– Winner awareness – Lottery officials publicize unclaimed prizes across the state to increase public awareness in the area where the winning ticket was sold. This helps notify winners who may be unaware.

– Retailer bonuses – Selling agents who cash winning tickets over $5,000 get a 1% bonus for prize claim support. This incentive encourages retailers to identify winners and direct them to claim procedures.

– Player education – Lottery officials communicate regularly with the public about how and when to claim prizes properly. Clear instructions help reduce confusion.

– Claim center access – Walk-in claim centers are available in 10 regional offices across California. More locations increases convenience for winners to claim in person.

– Validations – Ticket scanners at retail locations can validate prizes up to $600 for free. This gives players immediate confirmation of smaller wins.

– Self-service – The Lottery’s website and mobile app allow players to check numbers electronically, reducing reliance on paper tickets.

While the Lottery constantly enhances efforts to get prizes claimed, personal responsibility on the part of players is still essential. Check your tickets carefully, understand the rules, and claim your prizes in a timely manner.

Notable cases of unclaimed California Lottery prizes

With hundreds of millions in prizes going unclaimed over the decades, there are many remarkable stories of lottery windfalls that were never collected:

$63 million SuperLotto Plus jackpot

In 2003, a $63 million jackpot went unclaimed when the owner of the lucky ticket never came forward before the deadline. It remains the largest unclaimed prize in California Lottery history. The massive mystery jackpot was sold in San Bernardino County.

$28.5 million SuperLotto Plus prize

This prize from a ticket sold in Palmdale went unclaimed in 2010. After the winner missed the deadline, lottery officials held a second chance drawing to give the money to another ticket holder. Roberta Soderberg received a Christmas Eve call informing her she won the expired prize in the special drawing.

$22 million SuperLotto Plus ticket

At a 7-Eleven in San Jose, one player purchased the winning ticket for a $22 million prize in 2006. Store surveillance footage showed an older man buying the lucky ticket, but he never identified himself to claim the prize.

$16.1 million SuperLotto Plus ticket

This prize sold in Bellflower went unclaimed in 2002. The Los Angeles Times reported that a woman came forward days before the deadline insisting she was the winner. However, she failed to produce the winning ticket in time.

$12 million SuperLotto Plus ticket

In 2013, a $12 million prize sold in Atwater went unclaimed. The Merced Sun-Star covered a local resident named Frank Galicia who believed he purchased the winning ticket but couldn’t find it after his home was burglarized.

The examples above represent just a handful of the biggest unclaimed prizes in California Lottery history. Numerous other million dollar-plus windfalls have gone uncollected over the decades.

Famous cases of unclaimed jackpots and prizes in other U.S. lotteries

California isn’t the only state that’s had to deal with major unclaimed lottery prizes over the years. Across the country, there are many stories of lottery jackpots gone missing when winners didn’t come forward:

$77 million Powerball prize

This record Powerball jackpot went unclaimed in 2011 after the ticket was sold in Georgia. Investigators tracked purchases of multiple winners who bought tickets from the same location, but the actual $77 million winner was never identified.

$68 million Powerball prize

A winning ticket worth $68 million was sold at a gas station in Massachusetts in 2005. There was speculation that the winner was a bookie who feared coming forward, but the real reason was never uncovered.

$63 million Mega Millions prize

In 2018, the holder of a winning Mega Millions ticket purchased in New York never claimed the $63 million prize. Surveillance video showed it was purchased by an out-of-town couple just passing through.

$46 million SuperLotto Plus prize

A $46 million California Lottery jackpot went unclaimed in 2003. The ticket was sold at a liquor store in La Puente. Employees reported many locals purchasing tickets for the large jackpot.

$27 million Colorado Lotto prize

This jackpot sold in Pueblo, Colorado in 1992 went unclaimed when the owner of the ticket never surfaced. At the time, it was the largest unclaimed U.S. lottery prize on record. The ticket would have expired under Colorado’s 6-month claiming window.

These examples show that even eight-figure lottery fortunes often go uncollected. Mysterious circumstances, lost tickets, and missed deadlines result in millions in prizes never finding their way to the intended recipients.

What happens when a winning Mega Millions or Powerball ticket goes unclaimed?

For multistate lottery games like Mega Millions and Powerball, unclaimed prizes work a little differently compared to state-specific lotteries. When a top prize goes unclaimed, the money is returned proportionally to each member state that contributed to the jackpot.

For example, both California and New York sell Powerball tickets. If a winning Powerball ticket sold in California goes unclaimed, the state of New York still gets back its proportional share of the expired prize. This ensures funds are recouped by all participating lotteries, not just where the winning ticket was purchased.

Unclaimed Mega Millions and Powerball prizes are still used to fund lottery beneficiary programs, including education. So while the mystery winners miss out on millions, the money is redirected to each state’s educational initiatives funded by lottery profits.

Are lottery pools more likely to miss claiming prizes?

Playing the lottery in a pool with co-workers, friends, or family is a popular method some people use to afford more tickets and increase odds. However, group lottery purchases also raise the risk of complications when it comes time to claim prizes.

If an office pool wins, for example, the person holding the ticket may fail to share the news. Or the holder may be unaware who exactly was included in the pool. These situations can result in rightful winners being left out when pools don’t sort out internal details upfront.

Some industry experts estimate that lottery pools account for a disproportionate share of unclaimed prizes. Confusion and disputes over ownership lead some pool windfalls to go uncollected. Even if you play as a group, be sure proper arrangements are made ahead if you win.

Can I still claim my prize if I lose my lottery ticket?

Losing a winning lottery ticket puts you in a very difficult position. Without the original ticket, the California Lottery has no definitive proof you are the legitimate owner of a prize. However, all hope is not completely lost if you misplace a winning ticket:

– File a claim – Complete a claim form within the 180-day deadline to establish you are pursuing the prize money. Even without the ticket, submitting a claim reserves your rights.

– Reporting – Immediately call the California Lottery to report your lost ticket. Provide as much detail as possible about the purchase date, retailer location, ticket numbers chosen, etc. There is no guarantee a replacement can be issued, but reporting the ticket missing is essential.

– Investigation – You may be asked to submit an affidavit about the circumstances of the ticket loss. The California Lottery investigates claims thoroughly before approving replacement tickets. Documentation and evidence are required.

– Wait for approval – If convinced you did legitimately lose the winning ticket, the Lottery may authorize a replacement ticket after a waiting period. This process takes significant time, so act quickly if you lost a potential winner.

Recovering a lost prize without the original ticket is extremely challenging. Make every effort to find the ticket, and immediately report any losses to optimize your chances.

Can unclaimed lottery prizes be donated?

Legally, the California Lottery cannot donate unclaimed prize money directly to other causes or charities. By law, all unclaimed prizes must return to the lottery prize fund to support continued education contributions and future prizes.

However, when individuals or groups win lottery prizes, they have full authority to donate some or all of their winnings. As long as you claim the prize properly and on time, you can choose to gift some of the money to charity once it’s in your possession.

For example, in 2007 a retired postal worker claimed a $75 million California Lottery jackpot. After taxes, he donated several million to charities focused on child hunger and education. But the Lottery itself cannot proactively redirect unclaimed money to causes outside the mandated education fund.

Are time limits the same in other countries for unclaimed lottery prizes?

Time limits to claim lottery prizes vary significantly across different countries:

– United Kingdom – 180 days to claim

– Canada – Between 6 months and 1 year depending on province

– Australia – 1 year in most states

– Germany – 3 years

– Ireland – 3 months

– Spain – 3 months

– France – 60 days

– New Zealand – 1 year

– South Africa – 1 year

– India – 30 days

As you can see, deadlines range from as short as 30 days in some countries to several years in places like Germany. The 180 days in California falls right around the middle of the international range. Make sure you know the claim timeframe if playing lottery games in another country.


Going unclaimed is the unhappy fate of many California Lottery prizes over the years. Millions in jackpots and smaller windfalls end up getting recycled back into the lottery fund rather than awarded to lucky winners. While individual players miss out on forgotten or lost tickets, the money still benefits schools and students consistent with lottery beneficiary rules. Diligently check your tickets, be aware of deadlines, and claim your prizes promptly to avoid missing out on any lottery fortunes that come your way!