Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, one of the wealthiest couples in the world, announced yesterday that they are ending their marriage after 27 years together. What will follow is expected to be one of the largest divorce settlements in history.
While Melinda Gates’ net worth is not clear, Bill Gates is worth approximately $131 billion, Forbes reports, making him the fourth richest person in the world. Their global charity has a US $50 billion endowment and has focused on global development, education, healthcare and climate change.
In a joint media statement, the two said they don’t think “we can grow together as a couple” but would continue to work together on their philanthropic ventures. The news quickly turned attention to how one of the world’s biggest fortunes, which includes the largest private philanthropic organization in the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will be divided.
According to TMZ, the divorce petition they obtained includes no official prenuptial agreement. As Keon Family Law notes, Bill reportedly did ask Melinda to sign a “prenuptual” agreement after their marriage in 1994 in the interest of shareholders.
Newsweek also reported that Melinda had an agreement with Bill in their marriage that allowed him to see his ex-girlfriend Ann Winbald in an “annual weekend getaway.”
“Every spring, as they have for more than a decade, Gates spends a long weekend with Winblad at her beach cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where they ride dune buggies, hang-glide and walk on the beach,” a profile of Bill in Time magazine from 1997 read. It’s unclear if the practice continued after 1997, Newsweek said.
A trial date is set for April 2022, although it’s expected details of the divorce will be settled out of court before then. The document shows Melinda asks for no spousal support and is seeking to divide their assets according to an undisclosed separation agreement.
Washington state law may offer some clues to how the billionaires will divide their assets. As a community property state, anything acquired during a marriage is considered equally owned by both partners, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the fortune would be split in half.
“It is not a mandatory 50-50,” said Janet George, a family lawyer in Washington with the firm McKinley Irvin. “The courts can award more or less, depending on what is just and equitable.” The public might never find out how they split the fortune, because it can be hidden behind private contracts, she said.
At stake in the unprecedented divorce is private farmland in Washington, California, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana and Arizona. The Gates are the biggest landowners in the U.S., according to The Land Report, with roughly 242,000 acres of farmland in their names as of 2020. The Gates also own a $127 million, 66,000-square-foot mansion in Medina, Wash. overlooking Lake Washington.
In 2019, another billionaire couple ended their marriage in a high-profile split: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Mackenzie Scott. Scott received four per cent of Amazon’s outstanding shares and is worth $60 billion, after donating nearly $6 billion across hundreds of charity organizations last year.
Bezos, retained 75 per cent of his Amazon shares and all of his holdings in The Washington Post and space-flight company Blue Origin.
Unlike the Bezos divorce, the Gates’ marital assets are spread across real estate and philanthropic holdings and only one per cent in Microsoft.
With files from Bloomberg