Behind the scenes

Bill and Melinda Gates: how ‘most expensive divorce ever’ might unfold

The billionaire pair have split after 27 years together

Bill and Melinda Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest couples, have announced they are to divorce after 27 years of marriage. 

The billionaire pair, who together head the world’s largest private charitable organisation, announced the split in a “terse” note on their social media accounts on Monday, reports the Financial Times

Bill, 65, and Melinda, 56, met in the 1980s when she joined Microsoft, the technology company he co-founded. They married in 1994 and have three children. According to Bloomberg, Bill Gates is currently the fourth richest person in the world, being worth $146bn (£105bn), says The Telegraph.

The statement said that after “a great deal of thought and a lot of work” on their relationship they had decided to end the marriage, as “we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives”. 

What does divorce mean for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?

Bill and Melinda Gates, along with Warren Buffet, are creators of the Giving Pledge, which is a commitment by the “world’s wealthiest individuals” to give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes, either in their lifetimes or in their wills.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which the couple launched in 2000, is “easily the most influential private foundation in the world”, says the Los Angeles Times. It has an endowment of $49.8bn, with $38.8bn of the fund given by Gates in Microsoft stock. 

In their joint social media statement, the pair said they will “continue our work together at the foundation”, and a further statement from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation confirmed the couple would remain as co-chairs and trustees. 

But the Los Angeles Times says there are “a lot of unanswered questions” over its future, particularly in light of the divorce of Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott two years ago. 

Scott became one of the world’s richest people in the divorce, receiving some $36bn. But she “startled the philanthropic world”, says the LA Times, when she donated more than $4bn of her wealth in the span of four months last year.

“There is a possibility that after a divorce settlement, Melinda Gates may want to create her own foundation too and give to different causes,” suggests the paper. It speculates she “may want to focus more on women’s empowerment, which has been one focus of the couple’s foundation over the last five years”. 

What will their divorce settlement look like?

Washington State, where the couple filed for divorce, considers acquisitions made during a marriage to be equally owned by both partners. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean the fortune would be split in half,” says The Seattle Times

“The courts can award more or less, depending on what is just and equitable,” says Janet George, a family lawyer in Washington.

In their divorce filing, the couple “make it clear they have no prenuptial agreement”, reports the Daily Mail. Instead, they have a “separation contract” which will allow them to divide their assets by “mutual agreement” rather than through the courts, avoiding a “lengthy, public process, during which details about their private lives and assets may have been revealed”, says the paper. 

The pair have a $124bn fortune to divide, making them one of the “five richest couples in the world”, reports The Guardian

Bill Gates, who stepped down from the Microsoft board last year after 45 years, now owns only about 1% of the company, worth $26.1bn, and representing under one-fifth of his total fortune, says The Telegraph.

Instead, he has diversified into numerous industries through his holding company, Cascade Investment, which he founded with the proceeds of a Microsoft stock sale, and is now believed to be worth between $49bn and $51bn. Another $58.7bn of the fortune is thought to be in cash, with Gates receiving more than $50bn in stock throughout his life. 

The pair also own a huge seaside estate in Seattle named Xanadu 2.0, thought to be worth $131m, as well as other assets such as “two private jets worth perhaps $45m apiece, as well as a collection of Porsches, artworks by Andrew Wyeth and George Bellows, and one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks”, says the paper.

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