Bill and Melinda Gates, who for decades have overseen one of history’s greatest fortunes and philanthropic operations, said they plan to divorce.
The announcement Monday that the couple is splitting after 27 years of marriage has the power to ripple through the technology industry, a vast portfolio of business and real estate holdings and into the realms of global health, climate change policy and social issues including equality for women.
The pair, who command an estimated $146 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, made no hint of their financial plans, though they emphasized that they will cooperate on continuing their philanthropy.
And, according to the New York Post, court filings suggest that fortune will have to be split without benefit of a prenuptial agreement.
The Post reports the pair are said to have a "separation agreement," which is not the same as a prenup. A separation agreement is usually signed at the end of a marriage, the outlet said, and it spells out terms of the split. But for now, how the Gateses will divvy up things remains unclear. Said the Post, that contract wasn’t included in the divorce filing.
Bill Gates, the 65-year-old co-founder of Microsoft Corp., ranks as the world’s fourth-richest person. Melinda Gates, 56, is a former Microsoft manager who’s gained international prominence co-running the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s already given away more than $50 billion.
They will remain co-chairs and trustees of the foundation, a spokesperson for the organization wrote in an emailed statement.
“No changes to their roles or the organization are planned,” according to the statement. “They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues, and set the organization’s overall direction.”
It’s the second bombshell divorce among the uppermost ranks of the world’s richest people in recent years, following the 2019 separation announcement of Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott.
That split, which divided the couple’s stake in Amazon.com Inc., immediately made MacKenzie one of the world’s richest people. In the months that followed, she became one of the most influential philanthropists in the world, giving away billions of dollars to often overlooked causes among billionaire donors.
The Gates duo's wealth could prove more complex to carve up than the Bezos fortune, which was largely concentrated in Amazon stock.
Bill Gates’s net worth originated with Microsoft but shares of the software-maker now probably make up less than 20% of his assets. He’s shifted much of his stake into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over the years and his exact stake hasn’t been disclosed since he left Microsoft’s board last year.
Gates’s biggest asset is Cascade Investment, a holding company he created with the proceeds of Microsoft stock sales and dividends that’s run by Michael Larson. Through Cascade, Gates has interests in real estate, energy and hospitality as well as stakes in dozens of public companies, including Canadian National Railway and Deere & Co.
Monica Mazzei, a divorce attorney and a partner at Sideman & Bancroft LLP in San Francisco, said the big question concerning the couple’s foundation and family office is to what extent they plan on working together going forward.
“Even in the most amicable divorces I’ve seen, the preference has been to split the foundation in two so that there’s more autonomy and less intermingling,” she said. The same principle applies to family offices, where the investments could be divvied up into two separate pots.
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