Bill & Melinda Gates' separation agreement - a very different route to divorce

6th May 2021 Family Law

While all divorces are a sad event in people’s lives, and nearly 50% of marriages now end in divorce in this country, it doesn’t have to end up with fighting in the trenches and WWIII!

Bill and Melinda Gates are showing the world that it is possible to have an amicable and organised divorce with minimal fuss, costs and stress.  Very wisely, apparently they already have a separation agreement in place and they are asking a court in Seattle to approve it as it represents a full agreement between the Gates’ about how their money should be divided between them.  The benefit of this is that they are in control of how their assets are divided up, rather than leaving it in the hands of a judge.

Intriguingly, it appears that Bill and Melinda decided against having a prenup, which is incredibly unusual in such a massive-money case.  The court in Seattle will not be bound to accept, and make legally-binding, the separation agreement they have prepared between them, whereas a pre-nup would almost certainly have been rubber-stamped by the judge.  More details are awaited as to why they took this very different route.

More and more people, all over the developed world, are opting for pre-nups so that everyone knows what will happen if the worst ever happened – but the price to pay for that, of course, is that much of the romance is then sucked out of the marriage before its even got started!  Signing a pre-nup, often with a lawyer, when you are trying to organise a wedding must be a very stressful thing to do.

Without any agreement, or pre-nup, in place, the Seattle court would likely have divided all the assets 50/50, especially given the long marriage (nearly 30 years) and the fact that most of the assets were built up during the marriage and they have three children together.

Bill and Melinda say they will continue to work together on their Foundation, but this would be a rare example of divorced couples continuing to have such close financial ties with each other in the next stage of their lives; certainly, many courts prefer a complete ‘clean-break’ so the parties can hit the reset button without their exes hovering over every decision they make about their futures.

Individually, Bill Gates is worth about $130.5 billion, and still owns a small percentage of Microsoft.  In my experience, the big-money cases are some of the easiest to deal with – there is plenty to go round and nobody is going to go hungry.  The hardest cases are often those where there is little to share between the divorcing couple, there are children and there is a real worry about keeping a roof over their heads and dinner on the table. 

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David Thompson is a Partner located in Londonin our Family department

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