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Why is Powerball payout different in California?

Powerball is one of the most popular lottery games in the United States, with millions of people playing twice a week for a chance to win huge jackpot prizes. However, there is one key difference for Powerball players in California compared to other participating states: the payout structure.

Powerball Basics

First, let’s go over the basics of how Powerball works. Powerball is coordinated by the Multi-State Lottery Association and is currently offered in 45 states, as well as Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. To play, you pick five main numbers between 1 and 69, and one Powerball number between 1 and 26. There are nine ways to win a prize, ranging from $4 for matching just the Powerball up to the jackpot for matching all six numbers.

The starting guaranteed minimum jackpot is $40 million, and it continues growing until someone wins it. Jackpots roll over when there is no top prize winner, and the rollover amounts are based on ticket sales. Drawings are held every Wednesday and Saturday night at 10:59 p.m. Eastern Time.

Annuity vs. Cash Option

When you win the Powerball jackpot, you get two payout choices: annuity or cash option. With the annuity, you receive your prize in 30 graduated payments over 29 years. The cash option is a one-time, lump-sum payment equal to the jackpot prize pool. Most big winners take the cash option.

The advertised jackpot is based on the annuity payout. However, when it’s time to pay out the prize, the cash that’s available in the prize pool is less than the advertised annuity amount. That’s because the annuity includes the interest that will accrue over 29 years, allowing lottery organizers to invest some of the money over time.

California’s Payout Structure

Now, here is where California comes in. While most participating Powerball states use the standard annuity and cash payout calculations, California law requires much bigger upfront payouts. California does not allow lotteries to make long-term investments with prize money.

Instead, California requires the entire cash-equivalent amount of the jackpot, after federal taxes, to be paid out immediately to the winner. This means the cash payout is significantly higher compared to other states. Here are some examples of how this has played out with recent huge Powerball jackpots:

Jackpot Advertised Annuity Standard Cash Payout California Cash Payout
$1.586 Billion (1/13/2016) $1.586 Billion $983.5 Million $983.5 Million (no CA winner)
$758.7 Million (8/23/2017) $758.7 Million $480.5 Million $543.8 Million
$1.537 Billion (10/23/2018) $1.537 Billion $878 Million $1.24 Billion

As you can see, California’s cash payouts were significantly higher than the standard cash options for the same advertised jackpots. In the most extreme case, when the advertised annuity was $1.537 billion in October 2018, the California cash payout reached $1.24 billion due to state rules.

Why California is Different

California requires bigger instant payouts because state law prevents the lottery from investing unclaimed prize money. Other states allow lottery organizers to put a portion of jackpot cash into long-term investments, using the interest to help fund future prize payouts.

But in California, any cash left over after a drawing has to be put into a prize reserve fund that can only be used to pay future California prize winners. It cannot be invested to earn interest. With huge jackpots, this means significantly more cash has to be paid out upfront.

The Law and Its Origins

The California law regarding lottery prize payouts is found in the State Penal Code. Specifically, sections 8880.4 and 8880.32 outline how prize money is paid out and prohibits the state from profiting off unclaimed prizes.

This law has its origins in California’s unique history with lotteries. For a long time, the state banned all lotteries, shutting down a privately-run lottery system in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1984 that Californians voted to allow a state-run lottery system.

To help ensure the lottery would not exploit players, the original California State Lottery Act included consumer protection provisions and limited how unclaimed prize money could be used. The excess funds had to go directly back to the players rather than into state coffers.

Attempts to Change the Law

California’s prize payout mandates have caused some issues when jackpots get exceptionally high. With more cash required upfront, lottery organizers have sometimes struggled to quickly get the full sum needed to pay winners.

There have been several attempts to change California lottery laws in recent years. Bills have proposed allowing the lottery to invest a portion of prize funds, as other states do, to generate more interest income. But so far, these efforts have not succeeded due to concerns it would reduce payouts for California winners.

Impact on Players

For lottery players, California’s payout rules can be a huge bonus. The chance to instantly collect hundreds of millions more in cash is a nice perk.

Of course, the odds of winning the jackpot are the same in California as in any other participating state. And you’d still have to share the prize if there were multiple winners. But California law gives you a bigger piece of the pie upfront if you do match all six numbers.

One downside for players is that massive California cash payouts can increase state and federal taxes owed on the winnings compared to the annuity. California does not exempt state taxes on lottery winnings like some other states do. The winner is responsible for taxes right away, rather than over time with the annuity.

Frequency of California Winners

Despite the advantage for players, California has not had an abnormally high number of jackpot winners compared to its population. This is likely because the odds are still incredibly low, no matter how big the prize grows.

Since Powerball began in 1992, there have been seven jackpot winners who purchased tickets in California:

  • February 1998 – $95.4 million
  • August 2000 – $141 million
  • February 2002 – $177 million
  • June 2005 – $315 million
  • April 2011 – $232 million
  • August 2013 – $448 million
  • August 2017 – $758.7 million

Based on California’s population, their number of big winners is proportional to other participating states. The state makes up about 12% of total U.S. population, and has had about 10% of Powerball jackpot winners since 1992.

Changes After Major Wins

While California has not had an excessive number of wins, a couple very large jackpots have led to changes.

In 2005, when California had its first jackpot over $300 million, the California Lottery was not prepared for such a massive payout. It took nearly three months for the state to get the $315 million cash sum needed.

Since then, California lottery officials have made sure they have funds or backup financing available for large jackpots. This came in handy in August 2017 when it took just 11 days to get the $543 million cash payout to the lucky California ticket holder.

The huge 2018 jackpot also prompted nationwide changes. To lower the chances of massive jackpots, Powerball adjusted the odds from 1 in 292 million to 1 in 292.2 million. California also limited lottery ticket sales between drawings to mitigate quick jackpot growth.


In summary, California law requires the state’s Powerball winners to be paid the full cash value of the jackpot prize pool upfront. This results in much larger cash payouts compared to the standard lump sums offered in other participating states.

The regulations stem from California’s historical opposition to state-run lotteries as well as consumer protection provisions in its original lottery law. Attempts to change the payout structure have not succeeded so far.

Players in California can benefit from the chance at bigger cash prizes. However, it does mean winners may face higher tax bills. And despite the advantage, California has not had disproportionately more jackpot winners compared to its population.

While the odds of winning remain astronomical, unique state laws do make a Powerball jackpot victory especially lucrative in California.

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Powerball draws occur every Wednesday and Saturday night, typically a little before 11:00 PM Eastern Time. To play, you select five main numbers between 1-69 and one Powerball from 1-26. Tickets cost $2 each. Players can multiply non-jackpot prizes with the Power Play option for an extra $1 per ticket. Overall odds of winning any prize are 1 in 24.9.

The Multi-State Lottery Association coordinates Powerball on behalf of participating state lotteries. MUSL has oversight of game rules, number drawing procedures, and ticket sales. State lottery agencies sell the tickets, collect revenue, and award prizes to winners in their jurisdiction.

Powerball initially launched in April 1992. The starting jackpot was $2 million. Through various matrix changes over the years, the game has evolved to produce bigger jackpot amounts. Powerball joined forces with Mega Millions for cross-selling in 2010, helping increase jackpot sizes for both games.

The largest Powerball jackpot to date was $1.586 billion, split by three winning tickets on January 13, 2016. Winners from California, Florida and Tennessee split the record prize. Eight other jackpots have surpassed $500 million, most recently November 2022.

To win the jackpot, players must match all five main numbers plus the red Powerball. The odds are 1 in 292.2 million. Overall, the chances of winning any prize are 1 in 24.9. Prizes start at $4 for the Powerball only up to $2 million for matching 5 numbers.

The $1 million prize for getting 5 main numbers has odds of 1 in 11,688,054. For four numbers plus Powerball, the odds are 1 in 913,129. Odds decrease as you match more numbers. A $50,000 prize for 4 main numbers has odds of 1 in 36,525.

One unique thing about Powerball is that jackpots are “guaranteed” to increase each drawing. The advertised jackpot is based on an annuity payout, which increases even if no tickets hit the jackpot. Cash payouts can vary.

Rollovers happen when no ticket matches all six numbers. The jackpot funds rolls over to the next drawing and is boosted by further ticket sales. Rollover amounts added to the jackpot prize pool each drawing are set by the Multi-State Lottery Association.

State lotteries sell Powerball tickets at authorized retailers, usually convenience stores, gas stations and supermarkets. Sales cut-off times for ticket purchases vary by one to two hours before the drawing, depending on the state. Tickets can also be bought online in some states.

To collect a Powerball prize, winners need to sign the back of their ticket and present it to their state lottery office. For jackpot and grand prizes, you may need to go to lottery headquarters. Smaller prizes may be redeemable at local retailers or lottery district offices.

Powerball has certain minimum jackpot increases. After a rollover, the minimum jump used to be $10 million. Now minimum increases are $15 million after one rollover, $25 million after two rollovers, and $50 million after three rollovers. The maximum jackpot is capped at $1.586 billion.

State lotteries use proceeds from Powerball ticket sales to fund public services in their jurisdiction. In California specifically, the lottery provides supplemental funding for public education. Since inception, the California Lottery has contributed over $39 billion to schools.

Across all participating lotteries, Powerball ticket sales usually make up about 5-7% of overall sales. But when jackpots reach record highs, the percentage of sales going to Powerball can be much greater.

Powerball can be played in 45 U.S. states as well as Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The five states that do not offer Powerball are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah. These states have restrictions against participating in multi-jurisdictional games.

Over the years, Powerball has gone through many matrix changes and rule tweaks to adjust the frequency of jackpot wins and boost prize amounts. The game originally used a 5/45 main and 1/45 Powerball matrix. This changed to 5/55 + 1/42 in 2009 when Mega Millions cross-selling began.

The current 5/69 and 1/26 matrix with better overall odds was introduced in October 2015. Since then, jackpots have more routinely exceeded $400 million. The Power Play multiplier option also launched in 2015 to increase non-jackpot prizes up to $2 million for just $1 extra per ticket.