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Divorce Jury: Spouse Rates $1.7M From Lotto Winner

Former postal worker Rebecca Strong got her windfall from winning the lottery. Her ex-husband, John Pressley, is getting his from their divorce.

A DeKalb County jury found Friday that Strong, 43, a former postal worker must pay Pressley $1.7 million in alimony. Pressley v. Strong-Pressley No. 98-cv-49964 (DeKalb Sup. verdict Feb. 18, 2000). The award amounts to slightly more than 11 percent of the $15 million Strong won on a Georgia Lotto ticket in 1994.

Strong’s lawyer, Randall M. Kessler, a partner with Kessler & Schwarz in Atlanta, says Pressley has done well financially by divorcing his wife.

“She won the lottery and now he won his,” he says.

Pressley, a 52-year-old cabinet maker, and Strong had been dating since 1988. They married four months after Strong won what was then the largest payout ever in the Georgia Lotto game.

Strong used her annual payments of $750,000 before taxes to buy Pressley a new pickup, to pay his business debts and to pay for a home and medical care for her ailing mother, Kessler says.

But the marriage went sour and Strong left Pressley March 2, 1998, according to court documents. Pressley filed for divorce April 27, 1998, claiming that he and Strong were common-law spouses long before she won the lottery. As her husband, he claimed he deserved half the winnings.

However, DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gail C. Flake granted Strong’s motion for summary judgment which asserted that a common law marriage never existed and that the lottery prize did not constitute marital property.

To establish a common law marriage, Pressley would have had to show that he and Strong had lived together continuously, presenting themselves as a married couple with the intent to marry at the time the common law marriage began.

During a deposition, Pressley indicated the union might not have been marital until after he had the chance to marry a multimillionaire.

“The day you moved in permanently was the day you found out she had won the lottery?” Kessler had asked.

“Well, I moved in that night. I was there the night before. It was two nights before she won the Lotto. I was there,” he said.

Since the Lotto winnings were not ruled marital property, Strong will not have to share the next 14 annuity payments with her ex-husband as an equitable division. But a jury ensured that Pressley will get a chunk as alimony.

Pressley’s lawyer, R. Keegan Federal Jr. of Keegan Federal & Associates in Atlanta, says the jury awarded his client a fair amount.

“Everything’s relative,” he says. “I don’t think it’s that large, considering the sums involved.”

Kessler says it’s hard to compare this case to others because most divorce cases involving a great deal of money tend to settle quietly out of court and usually with a sealed agreement.

“People generally don’t want this kind of thing in the press,” he says. “It’s hard to gauge whether this amount is typical.”

Considering what Pressley was seeking, says Kessler, things could have turned out far worse for his client. “They were asking not only for half of what was to come, but also half of what had already come in,” he says.

Kessler’s associate, Marvin L. Solomiany, who assisted in the case, says that the size of the alimony payment blurs the line between equitable division and alimony.

The fact that Georgia has no statute governing equitable division, could make an interesting case on appeal, Kessler says. However, he says no decision has been made on whether to appeal or ask for a new trial.

For now, he says, Strong is just relieved to have the trial over.
Federal, Pressley’s lawyer, says he would help his client set up an annuity fund to ensure he will have enough money to live on for the rest of his life.

“This was not like the usual divorce case where there’s not enough money to go around,” he says.

Federal says that Pressley took his award in stride. After the verdict, the plaintiff met with his attorney in a library room near the courtroom.

His client, he says, wasn’t exactly celebrating. “He kind of dozed off back there, so he couldn’t have been that excited,” Federal says.