The Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce
Amanda McAlister, managing partner of the Group’s specialist family and children law practice, McAlister Family Law, offers her expert opinion on the news that Bill and Melinda Gates are to divorce, and looks at some of the issues involved.
I woke this morning to the news that Bill and Melinda Gates were to get divorced. Minutes later my phone starting ringing, as I took one request after another from journalists wanting to cover the story and get my opinion on what a later-in-life divorce involves. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every media outlet around the world is keen to look closer into why this multi-billionaire couple would want to part after 27 years of a seemingly very successful marriage.
Gates, 65, the fourth richest man in the world, founded Microsoft in 1975 and met his future wife Melinda in 1987, the year he became the world’s youngest billionaire. In 2000 they established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
They have three children – Jennifer, 25, Rory, 21, and Phoebe, 18 – and in the message announcing their divorce, they wrote:
“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work, we have made the decision to end our marriage.
“Over the last 27 years, we have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives. We continue to share a belief in that mission and will continue to work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives. We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life.”
Prenups and separation agreements
Court documents reveal that the couple do not have a prenuptial agreement. We’re told Melinda, 56, filed for divorce at a court in Washington state, saying “this marriage is irretrievably broken” when asked to explain the split, also revealing there was no prenuptial agreement when they wed on a Hawaiian golf course in 1994.
However, famously Bill used a pro and con list on a whiteboard to decide to whether or not to ask Melinda to marry him, so I suspect the couple may well have approached the ending of their marriage in the same carefully thought-out manner.
Indeed, the document, filed Monday in King County Superior Court in Seattle, notes that the pair has a “separation agreement.” A separation agreement is usually signed at the end of a marriage and lays out the terms of the split – it will, apparently, dictate how the couple will divide up their assets, which include the family home, a $125million compound overlooking Lake Washington on the outskirts of Seattle, a mansion in San Diego, a Santa Fe ranch, a countryside retreat in Wellington, Florida, a lakeside lodge in Wyoming which used to be home to Buffalo Bill and a garage full of Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. In fact, the Gates fortune is estimated at well over $100 billion, so I’m not surprised Melinda has not requested spousal support, according to the filing.
Divorcing after a long marriage
It’s interesting to note that there has been a significant increase in the number of couples filing for divorce who have been married for more than 20 years. I think it’s significant that the Gates’ youngest child recently turned 18: it’s reasonable to assume the couple wanted to wait for all their children to reach adulthood before they announced their formal separation, and I would also say it takes guts to do this after such a long marriage – perhaps even more so when your relationship, and your life, is so public.
How would this divorce be treated here?
Technically, separation agreements aren’t legally enforceable under UK law. But if both parties have been open and honest about their finances and taken independent legal advice about the agreement, then it’s entirely likely the court will decide you should stick to it.
However, under our jurisdiction there is also what’s known as the “millionaire defence”. This is a term created following the case of Thyssen-Bornemisza v Thyssen-Bornemisza (No)  FLR 1069 where a wealthy party put forward a defence to providing full disclosure, on the basis that he had sufficient wealth to pay a lump sum or maintenance to the financially dependent party. In other words, why should the court go to the trouble, time and expense of investigating the millionaire’s means, when it is clear that he/she can meet whatever reasonable order the court is likely to make?
This defence causes some controversy as the court has an obligation to consider the parties’ financial resources properly. Furthermore, in order for the court to conclude that an order is fair and reasonable, it must consider the full and frank disclosure of all material facts, documents and other material. Nevertheless, it remains a viable option for the very wealthy, who are hopeful of keeping the precise details of their finances entirely private.
Keep it respectful
When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie announced their split after 25 years of marriage, they emphasised that the decision was mutual. But even when a couple part on amicable terms, the financial untangling is likely to be complex, simply because the sums involved, and the assets held, are so huge. However, neither party has said anything derogatory in public about the other, and both have moved on: MacKenzie married again two years after the divorce, her ex-husband Jeff has been with his girlfriend for two years.
I hope Bill and Melinda Gates both go forward in positivity and enjoy a fulfilling and happy future, and in particular I applaud their decision to continue to work together on their charitable foundation – showing respect for one’s ex is vital if they are to be a couple who, instead of being known for how wrong they got their divorce, are known for getting it right.