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Mega Millions winner fled from husband ; Despite abuse, he may have claim to money

Holly Lahti burst into the spotlight a week ago in a feel-good story about a single mother who won a $190 million Mega Millions jackpot.

Then came the mug shot: a thin young woman with disheveled brown hair, a black eye and cuts and bruises on her face and neck. It turned out she was separated from a man who court records indicated had abused her and who now has a possible claim to some of the money through a quirk in Idaho law.

Lahti, 29, went underground with her two daughters immediately after learning she had won half of a $380 million jackpot in the Jan. 4 drawing. She has not been seen or heard in public since.

The mug shot was taken after Lahti and her husband, Josh Lahti, both were arrested during a domestic dispute in 2003. The charges were later dropped, and the couple has long been separated.

Josh Lahti said he did not know Holly had won the lottery until an Associated Press reporter told him last week.

"That's awesome! I won't have to pay child support!" he said upon learning his wife was rich.

As it turns out, the husband could be entitled to a chunk of the winnings because he and Lahti never divorced and were never legally separated. Idaho's murky law on the issue requires a divorce filing to grant separation, which is a key factor in splitting up assets between spouses.

While the lawyers sort out the issue in the months ahead, Holly Lahti can rejoice in the fact that her troubled past has given way to riches beyond her wildest dreams.

She quit her job as a customer service representative for a bank after winning the jackpot, then she asked family and friends not to talk with reporters. She did not appear at a Jan. 12 news conference in Boise where her good fortune was revealed.

She opted Friday to collect her jackpot in a lump-sum payment, instead of annual payments over 25 years. She will get $120 million, which will be reduced to $80.6 million by federal and state taxes.

Holly Lahti still lives in the couple's home in Rathdrum, a town in the Idaho Panhandle. Josh Lahti said he sees his daughters, age 12 and 10, most days.

Her friends are upset at all the attention paid to the decade-old mug shot and say it does not reflect the devoted and hardworking young mother who has moved on from a troubled marriage.

In 2003, Josh Lahti was arrested on a charge of violating a no-contact order, but that was dismissed. He was also was charged with second-degree kidnapping, possession of drug paraphernalia, domestic abuse, battery and false imprisonment. All but the kidnapping charged were dismissed. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail and three years probation.

In 2000, he was charged with domestic violence, but the charge was reduced to disturbing the peace. He was also cited in 2001 for failing to make child support payments.

Does Josh Lahti have a claim to some of the money? A University of Idaho law professor said it is unclear.

Nearly all other states except Idaho have laws that differentiate between separation and divorce, with division of assets clearly defined in each case, said Elizabeth Brandt, professor of family law. The Idaho statute muddles the concept of legal separation, and there is no clear case law on the issue.

But while the lottery winnings are almost certainly community property, Josh Lahti should not expect a huge windfall, Brandt said.

Holly Lahti can still file for divorce and contend that the winnings are all hers because the couple do not live together and do not support each other, Brandt said. A divorce does not automatically produce a 50-50 split of assets.

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