What to Expect After You Win Sweepstakes

You've Won a Prize! But What Happens Next?

When you enter sweepstakes, you probably dream about the prizes you're going to win. But have you ever stopped to wonder how you actually claim your prizes? Or to take steps to ensure you don't accidentally forfeit a prize?

This guide will walk you through the winning process, including how you find out when you're a potential winner, how to tell the difference between a legit prize win and a scam, and the proper steps to claim your prize without being disqualified.

Whether you're an old hand at entering sweepstakes or a newbie dreaming of your first win, this guide will ensure you do everything right when you win a prize.

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Get Your Win Notification

Woman reaching into mailbox for mail
Win notifications can come by mail, email, phone, and more. Tetra Images / Getty Images

The process of claiming your prize begins with a win notification: the official notice that you are a potential winner. You will remain a potential winner until you've completed the prize claim process and received your prize.

Win notifications usually arrive by email, postal mail, registered mail, telephone, or social media. It's important to make sure that you check the contact methods you use on your sweepstakes entry forms regularly; it's devastating to miss out on a big prize because you waited too long to check your email!

You should also be sure that, when you fill out sweepstakes entry forms, you don't make a mistake that makes it difficult -- or impossible! -- for sponsors to contact you.

To do this, double-check each form before you submit your entry to make sure you didn't make a typo or leave out important information. Form-filling programs like LastPass or Roboform can help you avoid typing mistakes.

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Verify That You've Really Won

Man chatting on his mobile phone in a coffee shop
Don't Commit to Anything Until You Verify Your Win. Ezra Bailey / Getty Images

Before you get too excited, it's a good idea to make sure that the win notification is legitimate, not a sweepstakes scam.

Once you've entered sweepstakes for a while, you'll to be able to weed out obvious scams quickly. However, some scams are sophisticated and difficult to spot.

If you have any doubt that your notification is legit, take steps to verify it. For example, call your contact from a number that's publicly listed for the company sponsoring the giveaway to double-check. Also, never pay any money to receive your prize.

Check out how to verify your sweepstakes prizes for more ideas.

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Read Your Win Notification Carefully

Hand turning document page, close-up
Reading the Fine Print Is Very Important. PhotoAlto/Alix Minde / Getty Images

Once you've received your win notification, read it carefully. There will be important instructions in it that you'll need to follow precisely if you don't want to lose your prize.

Sometimes a win notification will tell you the prize is on its way, and you don't have to do anything else. But you'll usually need to take action to claim your prize, like responding to the winning email or getting a notary to witness you filling out your claim form, and you'll have a limited amount of time to react.

So be sure to read the fine print of your notification to be sure that you know exactly what you need to do to claim that prize.

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Record Your Sweepstakes Prize

Adding Prize Wins to a Database
Record Your Prizes Immediately to Make Tracking Easy. PeopleImages.com / Getty Images

After you've verified that your win is legit, record your sweepstakes prize before you forget the details. It's a good idea to create a spreadsheet where you keep a running total of your prizes each year.

Your win notification will usually include the information you'll want to track, including the sponsor's name, the name of the giveaway, the prize you've won, and the date that the prize is expected to arrive.

Tracking your prizes makes tax time easier; it also helps make sure that you don't let a prize slip through your fingers by reminding you to follow up if it doesn't arrive as expected.

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Fill Out an Affidavit (If Required)

Image of an Affidavit
Fill Out Your Affidavit Carefully to Receive Your Prize. Image (c) Entienou / E+ / Getty Images

Many win notifications include an affidavit that you'll be expected to fill out and return before you'll receive your prize.

An affidavit verifies your information and gives the sponsor the information they'll need to fulfill their tax obligations. Read more about why sponsors need affidavits.

Don't be surprised if the affidavit asks for your social security number; this is not a sign of a sweepstakes scam.

Sponsors have legitimate reasons for requesting social security numbers, and there's nothing suspicious about them asking for one before they release a prize.

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Get Your Affidavit Notarized (If Required)

Businessman stamping document
Sometimes You'll Need to Have Your Affidavits Notarized. PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier / Getty Images

Many sponsors require their winners to notarize an affidavit of eligibility before returning it. This helps the sponsor verify that your information is accurate and that you really are eligible to win the prize.

If you're not familiar with notaries in your area, see where to find notaries for affidavits.

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Return Your Affidavit (If Required)

Four bright blue USPS mailboxes in a row
Make Sure to Return Your Affidavit on Time. Tyson Paul / Getty Images

You want to be sure to return your affidavit by the sponsor's deadline; if you're late, you'll forfeit your prize.

It's a good idea to send your affidavit by certified mail so you have proof that you sent it on time.

Some sponsors will also allow you to fax or email them a copy of the affidavit so they have your information even if the letter is lost or delayed in the mail. For higher-value prizes, it might be worth using certified mail to ensure your affidavit arrives on time.

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Follow Up with the Sponsor

Man using mobile phone at home.
Making Sure the Sponsor Received Your Info Can Save You Heartbreak. Dougal Waters / Getty Images

Many sweepers have lost prizes because they thought they had safely returned their affidavit, but the sponsor never received it.

If the sponsor doesn't hear back from you, they'll assume you don't qualify or don't want the prize, and they'll award it to someone else.

Once the prize has been awarded to another winner, you've lost your chance to receive the prize, even if your affidavit was lost in the mail. 

To avoid this painful mistake, call or send the sponsors a letter or an email to verify that they received the affidavit. Make sure you do this before the deadline so that you can resend it if necessary.

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Watch for Your Win

Young woman looking out of window
Waiting for Your Prize to Arrive Can Be the Hardest Part. Tara Moore / Getty Images

Pay attention to when your prize is due to arrive and keep an eye out for its arrival.

It's unfortunately common for prizes to arrive well after their expected date. But if it's been a few weeks past the due date and the prize still hasn't shown up, contact the sponsor to follow up.

There may be a mix-up with your prize, or it might have been misdelivered or lost in the mail.

If a sponsor knows about the problem, they can resolve it for you. But if you don't pay attention until long past the prize's due date, you'll miss your chance to let the sponsor know in time.

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Send a Thank-You Note

Image of a thank you letter
Writing a thank-you letter makes a good impression on sweepstake sponsors. t_kimura / Getty Images

Sending the sponsor a thank-you letter is a nice gesture. It makes the sponsors feel good, and it could encourage them to hold more sweepstakes or to go the extra mile in fulfilling your prize.

In You Can't Win if You Don't Enter, Carolyn Wilman relates how a sponsor included a bunch of extra prizes ​because she was so polite and so excited when she was notified of her prize.

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How to Handle Surprizes

Mid adult man with gift on front doorstep
Surprizes Are Prizes That Just Appear at Your Door. Nils Hendrik Mueller / Getty Images

The prize claim process usually begins with a win notification... but there is an exception. Surprizes are sweepstakes prizes that show up in the mail without any previous notice. They may not even have an explanation of where they come from!

Surprizes are fun and easy, but in some cases, they can also cause confusion.

In the United States, sponsors are required by law to declare any prizes worth more than $600 to the IRS. To do so, they need an affidavit before they release the prize.

So if you receive a large check in the mail, chances are good that it's not a surprize, but rather a sweepstakes check scam.

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Pay Your Taxes

Which Taxes Should You Expect to Pay when you Win Vacation Prizes?
Paying Taxes Is an Important Part of Winning Prizes. Image © Getty Images / Don Carstens

If you live in the United States, the final step of your winning process, and the only one that you are required to do by law, is paying taxes on the prizes you've received.

It might be disappointing, but U.S. law treats any prize win as income, so you're required to report everything you win. Unlike with gambling winnings, sponsors are not required to withhold any of your winnings.

You're supposed to report all your winnings, big or small. Don't fall for the old sweepstakes myth that says people don't have to report prizes worth under $600. That's not true.

Sponsors are required to send tax forms for prizes worth $600 and more, but you're required to report your prizes regardless of their value.

If you live outside the United States, check your local laws for information about whether you need to pay taxes on prizes and how you do it.