Bill and Melinda Gates, the influential billionaire couple in charge of the world’s largest private foundation, are divorcing after 27 years of marriage, the pair said Monday in separate announcements on Twitter. In the divorce filing, the couple said their marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Bill and Melinda will remain co-chairs of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and they will continue to work together to shape the strategies of the foundation and set the organization’s direction, according to a spokesperson.
The shock announcement leaves several questions about the Gates fortune unanswered. It’s unclear how the couple will divide their assets or whether they signed a prenup, but due to the sheer size of their fortune, the split will likely be one of the largest divorce settlements in history. Bill Gates, who in 1975 cofounded Microsoft, is worth $130.5 billion, making him the fourth richest person in the world, according to Forbes. Gates first became the world’s richest person—with a $12.9 billion fortune—in 1995, one year after he married Melinda. According to the divorce petition, Bill and Melinda are currently separated and signed a contract dictating how the couple will handle finances while living apart. They asked the court to divide their assets based on the terms of the separation contract, but details of the contract weren’t disclosed. The filing does not mention a prenup, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have one, since they aren’t obligated to disclose everything on the filing.
Complicating matters is the fact that Washington, where the Gates family resides, is a community property state. That means all assets acquired by either party during a marriage are considered communal and typically split equally during divorce in the absence of a prenup. Though in Washington, the parties can agree to divide their assets in a way that is “just and equitable,” which can result in settlements that aren’t necessarily 50/50, Janet George, a divorce attorney at Washington-based law firm McKinley Irvin, told Forbes. Take Jeff Bezos and his ex-wife MacKenzie; Jeff gave MacKenzie one quarter of his Amazon stake in their divorce settlement. If Bill and Melinda did decide to split the fortune equally, Melinda would be worth $65.25 billion, which would be more than MacKenzie Scott, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife, who is worth $59.8 billion (Scott did donate nearly $6 billion of her fortune to charitable entities last year.).
Forbes assembled a list of the largest billionaire disunions on record—at least where we could follow the money. In some cases, like the split between Google’s Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, we don’t know the size of the settlement because divorce filings were sealed.
Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott
AT LEAST $35 BILLION
The couple met while both were working at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in New York. After they moved to Seattle, MacKenzie helped Jeff get Amazon off the ground. In April 2019 they announced the terms of their divorce: She received about 4% of Amazon’s outstanding shares—worth over $35 billion in 2019 when the settlement was announced (and far more now, with Amazon stock up nearly 75% since then). Jeff held on to all of the rocket company Blue Origin and the Washington Post. Once the divorce was finalized, MacKenzie, who changed her last name to Scott in 2020 and got remarried in March 2021, became the world’s third-richest woman.
Bill and Sue Gross
The Grosses’ messy split minted a new billionaire and dragged down another. Sue filed for divorce in 2016 from her husband, the founder of asset-manager Pimco, and she walked away a year later with a $1.3 billion fortune. That haul included a $36 million Laguna Beach house and “Le Repos,” a contested 1932 Picasso painting that she later sold for $35 million. While Bill tried to hang on to one of their three pet cats, Sue eventually got custody of all of them. Bill lost his spot on The Forbes 400 in 2018 following 14 consecutive years on the list. Both now run their own charitable vehicles.
Steve and Elaine Wynn
The cofounders of the casino giant Wynn Resorts divorced (for the second time) in 2010. That settlement dictated that Elaine, a Wynn Resorts board member since 2002, receive 11 million shares, then worth an estimated $795 million. Steve also sold around $114 million in stock that year—some, if not all, went to Elaine as part of the deal. She then sued Wynn Resorts in 2012 to sell part of her 9% stake and was kicked off the board three years later amid an ugly proxy battle.
After Steve stepped down as CEO and chairman in February 2018 amid sexual harassment allegations that he has denied, he sold all his shares. Elaine, now worth $2.3 billion, is Wynn Resorts’ largest individual shareholder.
Harold Hamm and Sue Ann Arnall
After three years of bitter court proceedings, oil tycoon Harold in 2015 tried to finally end his 26-year marriage with Sue Ann (no prenup) by writing her a check in the amount of $974,790,317.77 from his Morgan Stanley account. She deposited it, but then changed her mind, decided she wanted more and filed an appeal seeking a bigger share of the then-$13.7 billion fortune tied to Hamm’s 75% ownership in publicly traded Continental Resources. In April 2015 the Oklahoma Supreme Court ended the saga, granting Harold’s motion to dismiss her appeal, reasoning from precedent that Sue Ann had agreed to the settlement by signing and depositing the check. Sue Ann subsequently funded a political action committee that succeeded in its effort to unseat the judge who presided over the divorce.
Roy E. and Patricia Disney
Roy and his wife filed for divorce in 2007 at the ages of 77 and 72, respectively, after 52 years of marriage. Roy, a nephew of Walt Disney, was worth approximately $1.3 billion at the time. Previously a Forbes 400 mainstay, he lost nearly half of his fortune in the split and was dropped from the list. In 2008, he married writer and producer Leslie DeMeuse. He died a year later; Patricia died in 2012. A family foundation with assets of $122 million (as of 2018) bearing both of their names supports environmental and economic causes.Leave a comment