Last-Minute Lotto: Couple Claims $1 Million Mega-Millions Prize in North Carolina

PHOTO: Erin and Raleigh Hill of Stallings, NC, shared a $1 million win in the N.C. Education Lottery?s Mega Millions game.PlayN.C. Education Lottery
WATCH North Carolina Lotto Prize to Expire

Just one day before their winning lottery ticket turned into a scrap of worthless paper, a North Carolina couple has come forward to claim their big million-dollar prize.

Erin and Raleigh Hill of Stallings, N.C., had held onto the winning ticket for months, despite lottery authorities' desperate attempts to locate the winners. Raleigh Hill, a baggage handler, told Lotto officials that when he learned he had won, he waited weeks to tell his wife Erin, who works for the federal government.

Finally, when she had a bad day, he said he casually shared the news of their windfall, telling her, "Things aren't all that bad."

As the months ticked by, Erin encouraged her husband to redeem the ticket, but fearing "hoopla," he stashed it away in everything from a Bible to a shoebox, lottery officials said. At one point, he even worried that he had lost the ticket, forgetting where he had put it.

"When she brought the subject up, I'd always say, 'We'll talk about it,'" Raleigh said to lottery officials today as he and his wife picked up their prize. "It wasn't about the money. It was the attention... I was overwhelmed. Nervous."

If the couple hadn't come forward, their good fortune would have meant nothing.

In a quest to find the new millionaires, the N.C.E.L had placed a banner sign up at the store where the ticket was sold asking "Who's Got the Million Dollar" ticket. The ticket was sold at Market Express on 2800 Old Monroe Road in Matthews in Mecklenburg County. The time line on Mega Million winnings is 180 days from the drawing.

"We really want the person who won this prize to get the winnings," said Van Denton, director of corporate corporations at North Carolina Education Lottery, before the Hills emerged. "This person had some great luck and they deserve this prize."

It wouldn't have been the first time that a prize went unclaimed. In Texas, one unlucky lotto winner failed to collect a prize worth $4.1 million.

"It happens often," says Gail Howard, the author of "Lottery Master Guide." This is why lottery players should "check their tickets right after the drawing because you could have a nice prize waiting for you."

But, why is it so common for lottery tickets to go unclaimed?

"I think it's more that they were too busy or too lazy to check their ticket," says Howard. "Then days went by and it went out of their mind."

If the Hills had waited too long, their $1 million prize would have been divided equally between the lottery's education fund and, to an unusual benefactor, Medicaid. The lottery intended to direct funds to a Medicaid shortfall instead of the typical allotment for prizes for players in 2011.

"Celebrating winners is one of the most fun things we do at the lottery and we hate to see prizes go unclaimed," wrote NCEL Executive Director Alice Garland.

The kerfuffle brings to mind an incident two years ago in the state when a man nearly lost out on $200,000 because his unchecked lottery ticket was left sitting on his dresser. It took the prompting of a friend who heard of the dwindling timeline for the ticket owner to realize he was the lucky winner -- less than two days before the expiration date.

The nearly five-year-old lottery system has seen 16 tickets go unclaimed. That's at least four tickets a year -- remember we're not in year five, yet -- where winners have failed to claim anywhere from $100,000 to $800,000. Since N.C. began its lottery system, nine of the unclaimed tickets have been Powerball winnings and seven of the unclaimed tickets have been Carolina Cash 5 tickets. The state's largest unclaimed ticket was a Powerball ticket for $800,000 in April 2008.

How do you lose out on millions? "Maybe they very seldom buy tickets and they're not in the habit of checking their winning ticket," says Howard. "They might assume they have a losing ticket."

That could have been the case in 2002 after a future millionaire 51 times over lost out on the fortune after failing to claim a $51.7 Powerball ticket sold in Indiana.

"People that win often look forward to checking their ticket," Howard says. "But, even if someone knows, and they put it in a very safe place, they might forget where that safe place was."

ABC's Bradley Blackburn contributed to this report.