Wheel of Fortune Jackpot, Community or Separate Property?

Scott Dole of Culver City, CA won $51,600 on Wheel of Fortune in October, 2009. Unfortunately for him, he has yet to see a penny of those funds because his winnings were ordered to be placed in trust pending the outcome of his divorce from his Wife, Carrie Dole. Carrie is requesting that half of those funds are awarded to her, claiming that the winnings are “community property.”

Carrie Dole filed for divorce from Scott Dole in March, 2008, but the parties eventually reconciled and moved back in together. In October, 2009, Scott appeared on Wheel of Fortune and won the jackpot. A month later, Carrie again moved out and renewed her request for a divorce.

Is Scott’s Wife entitled to one half of his winnings?? The answer all comes down to whether or not the winnings were a community property asset.

According to California law, all property, real or personal, wherever situated acquired by a married person during marriage is presumed to be community property. Assuming that presumption stands, any such property must be divided equally between the parties.

On the other hand, an asset is a person’s separate property if it was acquired before marriage, or while the parties were living “separate and apart,” or if the property was received by “gift, bequest, devise or descent.”

Scott’s Wife contends that the funds are community and therefore should be divided equally. Scott, however, is claiming that the funds are his separate property and should be awarded to him.

Scott’s claim that the winnings are his separate property and should be solely awarded to him could be based on two different theories: 1) The funds were acquired while the parties were living separate and apart, or 2) The winnings were a “gift,” rather than an item of property or earnings acquired by him.

Here, by the time Scott appeared on the show and won the money, his Wife had already filed for divorce, BUT the parties had reconciled and were living together. Even though she moved out a month later, the parties were probably not technically living “separate and apart” at the time Scott appeared on the show. Thus, Carrie Dole may have a pretty good argument that the winnings were acquired during marriage.

As for whether or not game show winnings are an item of property to be divided, cases out of Illinois and New York have held that lottery winnings, won during marriage from efforts of one spouse, are community property subject to division in a divorce proceeding.

The law is not clear cut on this issue and ultimately it will be up to a Judge to decide. Although not many divorce cases deal with Wheel of Fortune winnings, there are many other complicated issues surrounding various items of assets and debts that can come up in any case. At Mello & Pickering, LLP, we can help you to determine what your rights are with regard to your assets and debts or those of your husband/wife. Give us a call at (408) 288–7800 to schedule a free 20 minute telephone conference or to set up an in person one hour appointment.