Many investors were surprised Tuesday morning when Microsoft shares exhibited little reaction to the news that the company's founder, Bill Gates, and his wife of 27 years, Melinda French Gates, had agreed to divorce.
Now that the world has had some time to adjust to the reality that Bill & Melinda, one of the world's preeminent power couples, are filing for divorce, the world's attention is now turning to a critical question: how will they divide up a fortune that has been quoted to be as large as $150 billion, and includes an investment fund that is the biggest private owner of farmland in the US, among other dubious distinctions.
As TMZ and other scrutinized the divorce documents filed in Washington State, it was initially believed that Bill and Melinda didn't have a prenup in place, but as one twitter user pointed out, the reality is slightly more nuanced.
TMZ went to the trouble of fetching the official divorce petition filed in King County Superior Court (which we have shared below).
And Twitter's David Lat offers a summary of the document and a separation agreement that was cited, but has yet to be released (h/t @DavidLat):
1/ THREAD. For legal nerds wondering if Bill and Melinda Gates have a prenuptial agreement aka prenup, apparently the answer is no. From the petition for divorce that @melindagates filed against @BillGates: pic.twitter.com/JM7HuryyB7— David Lat (@DavidLat) May 4, 2021
2/ Here’s the full petition for divorce, via @TMZ.— David Lat (@DavidLat) May 4, 2021
The @nytimes reported that Bill Gates and Melinda Gates are believed to have a prenup, but question 11 seems pretty clear to me — there’s a separation agreement but no prenup.https://t.co/MNgJKIknWt
3/ The Gates divorce petition refers to a separation agreement under RCW 26.09.060, which is “a written separation contract providing for the maintenance of either of them, the disposition of any property,” etc.https://t.co/au9tMI7IEO— David Lat (@DavidLat) May 4, 2021
4/ Prenuptial agreements, referred to as “agreements as to status,” appear to be addressed in a separate statutory provision:https://t.co/82CJglv9dl— David Lat (@DavidLat) May 4, 2021
5/ Caveat: I’m not a Washington State matrimonial lawyer (and none of this is legal advice obviously).— David Lat (@DavidLat) May 4, 2021
If you are a Washington State divorce lawyer, please correct me if I’m wrong about any of this. Thanks!
6/ UPDATE: Wait! Bill and Melinda Gates might have had a prenup, but it was superseded (supplanted) by the separation agreement. The @nytimes reports that the Gateses "are believed to have a prenuptial agreement."https://t.co/lNp4nfE2fm— David Lat (@DavidLat) May 4, 2021
7/ Bottom line: Bill Gates and Melinda Gates might have a prenuptial agreement aka prenup.— David Lat (@DavidLat) May 4, 2021
For more details, please read this post on Original Jurisdiction. My thanks to @tkretchmar for his excellent insights.https://t.co/VVpUPJvZok
8/ Further support for @BillGates and @melindagates having a prenup (which got superseded by and/or incorporated into the separation agreement mentioned in the divorce petition):https://t.co/n6lQZVWKJn— David Lat (@DavidLat) May 4, 2021
To sum up, whether the Gates ever had a prenup is irrelevant since they appear to have already hammered out a separation agreement that sets out how their assets will be split and their various obligations to their children, charitable endeavors etc. According to legal sources, a separation agreement is a private contract signed by a couple when they want to spend time apart and live separately. It lists their rights and obligations, such as child support and custody. While it can be submitted to a court for approval (as the Gates appear to have done in this case) the documents are signed without the involvement of the court, and sometimes couples with separation agreements live separately without ever seeking a divorce (which makes us wonder whether Bill and Hillary have one of these "private contracts" in place spelling out their obligations to each other and the "Clinton family".
In the separation agreement - at least according to the few details that have been publicly released - the couple said it would remain as co-chairs and trustees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which had net assets of $43.3 billion at the end of 2019. Last year, the foundation said it would spend $300 million on treatment, detection and vaccines to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Rabobank ran some quick numbers and it appears that the Gates' net wealth that will be split is larger than the GDP of 153 of the world’s 213 economies and territories.
Notably, the divorce documents list Melinda Gates as the petitioner, and Bill Gates as the respondent.
So far, the biggest divorce settlement in history was the $38 billion received by MacKenzie Scott when she split from Jeff Bezos. It's possible - but not guaranteed - that Melinda Gates could get even more than that.
The couple have 3 adult children, Jennifer, Rory and Phoebe, and reside in their huge, earth-sheltered family mansion, dubbed Xanadu 2.0, overlooking Lake Washington in Medina, Wash. As per Forbes, Gates, who co-founded Microsoft, is fourth on the list of the world's richest individuals with a net worth of $130.5 billion. However, the net worth of Melinda Gates, isn't as clear. A former Microsoft employee, Melinda Gates founded Pivotal Ventures, an investment company focused on women and families in 2015, and has also authored a book. Many media sources are quoting the size of their combined fortune at around $150 billion.
According to WSJ, most of the Gates family’s wealth is held by a personal investment firm called Cascade Investment LLC. CNBC reported on Gates' wealth and the firm Tuesday morning, while explaining that while Gates only owns 1.4% of the company, the bigger impact will be on the major holdings of Cascade. Cascade co-owns the Four Seasons hotel chain, and is also one of the largest owners of US farmland. It is no longer a marital asset so it's not subject to division, but control could become a big issue. The fund's returns have typically gone to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation via donations made by the Gates.
Looking ahead, observers will be looking for more clues from the separation agreement, or for any indications about a settlement that would remove the issue from court. Remember, the Gates' have asked for a trial date in April 2022 in their divorce filing, but observers expect an out-of-court settlement will be reached before then.