Elderly man reads the newspaper every morning in the bathroom.
He dies. Widow picks up the old papers, finds a Powerball ticket.
Her kids insist: Mom, check it out. She does — just in time!
Widow claims a $100,000 prize the day before the ticket expires.
That story — from Karen Emery, deputy director of the Arizona Lottery — is a rare happy ending in the history of long-lost lottery tickets.
More than a half-billion dollars in lottery prizes went uncollected last year, a USA TODAY survey found.
These lost riches include dozens of jackpots worth $1 million or greater and hundreds worth $100,000 or more.
In January, a $1.5 million ticket expired in Minnesota.
In June, a $7.5 million ticket expired in Oregon.
On Christmas Eve, a $3 million ticket is set to expire in Florida.
Lottery officials attribute unclaimed prizes to human forgetfulness. Florida had a $30 million jackpot unclaimed in 2003.
"It could have been a visitor who came for a vacation and left ... or the ticket could have gone though the wash," Florida Lottery spokesman Alfred Bea says.
Players often rely on retailer computers to tell them when they've won. Rather than checking numbers, lottery players hand tickets — sometimes dozens at a time — to convenience store clerks for a computer check. Winning tickets are cashed; losers are discarded.
Both human and machine errors are problems.
In Ohio, a computer scan failed to validate a $267 million winning ticket in 2006. Toledo tax attorney Mark Mockensturm, who represented the winner, confirms the story. "The computer system at the lottery office in Cleveland didn't read the encoded ink," he says. The ticket was validated in other ways.
"The size of the jackpot caused a hiccup in the computer program," Ohio Lottery spokeswoman Marie Kilbane says. The software was fixed, and the ticket was paid. "All's well," she says.
Poorly designed scratch-off tickets also make it hard for some lottery players to know they've won. Winning tickets can end up in the trash can because of confusing designs.
Lotteries publicize big unclaimed prizes before they expire. "We tell people: 'Check your tickets! Hey, you never know,' " New York Lottery spokesman John Charleson says.
In 2001, computer technician Melvin Milligan of Passaic, N.J., saw a TV report on an unclaimed $46 million ticket. He found an old ticket in a junk drawer. The store confirmed the winning ticket, two days before expiration. Milligan mailed the $46 million ticket, by regular mail, to the lottery office in Trenton. The ticket arrived after the deadline. He got the money, thanks to the postmark.
Rushi and Amid Patel, who run Ocean Breeze Liquor and Pub in Jensen Beach, Fla., hope for a similar late arrival. The store sold a $3 million ticket that expires Dec. 24. The store got a prize — $7,500 — for selling the ticket.
Time is running out for the person who bought Florida Lotto ticket 8-13-14-32-43-48 for the drawing June 27. "We sell 350 to 400 tickets a day," Amid Patel says. "It could have been anyone from anywhere."
The biggest unclaimed, expired prizes for tickets bought in a sampling of states:
- California: $28.5 million
- Delaware: $5 million
- Florida: $30.1 million
- Indiana: $51.7 million
- Iowa: $610,000
- Missouri: $1.7 million
- Illinois: $14 million
- Kansas: $200,000
- Kentucky: $1.2 million
- Montana: $100,000
- New Hampshire: $2 million
- New Jersey: $19 million
- New Mexico: $270,000
- North Dakota: $20,000
- Ohio: $14 million
- Oregon: $3.5 million
- Pennsylvania: $14.6 million
- Rhode Island: $293,000
- South Carolina: $800,000
- Tennessee: $1.3 million
- Texas: $13 million
- Virginia: $11.6 million