Oprah’s $7MM Car Giveaway and the Audience’s $1.6MM Tax Bill

Fifteen years ago, The Oprah Winfrey Show made TV history with the iconic “You get a car!” giveaway episode. Oprah surprised her studio audience with 276 brand new Pontiac G6 sedans worth over $7 million. While the surprise went down as one of the show’s most memorable moments, the aftermath of the giveaway left recipients faced with a hefty tax bill.

The segment began with Oprah calling eleven random audience members on stage and announcing that they had each won a car. After their excitement had died down, she told the entire audience to retrieve gift boxes from under their seats and announced that one of the boxes also contained car keys. Upon opening the boxes, every audience member found a set of keys causing pandemonium throughout the studio.

The giveaway was sponsored by Pontiac, a General Motors brand, as a promotional marketing campaign. While General Motors covered the price tag of $28,500 and the sales tax of $1,800, the gift tax was left for the prize winners to handle. The cars were not classified as gifts and instead were considered promotional prizes, similar to the way game show giveaways and lottery wins are treated. The value of the cars was going to be taxed accordingly, at a total of about $6,000 to $7,000. This is in accordance with the tax code which states that “Except as otherwise provided in this section or in section 117 (relating to qualified scholarships), gross income includes amounts received as prizes and awards.”

Although receiving a car at a $6,000 price tag is a significant discount, audience members had been chosen by the Oprah staff based on their need for a car. Most individuals had to scramble to come up with the funds to be able to receive any benefit from the prize. The alternate options were selling the car and paying the taxes or turning the prize down altogether.

While unfortunate, the experience of Oprah’s audience members  provides a valuable lesson about dealing with windfall events you may experience in your own life. Winning the lottery, receiving an unexpected inheritance, and cashing out a retirement plan are all financial events that can be a welcome occurrence, but can raise serious financial questions that you must deal with quickly.

Talley offers a broad spectrum of services to fulfill the needs of high net worth individuals, entrepreneurially driven companies, and their owners. Whether you are considering an M&A transaction or experiencing a financial windfall event, the professionals at Talley can help you to make the most of both your earnings and winnings.

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