Bill and Melinda Gates to divorce with $146bn at stake

The Microsoft co-founder and his wife, who launched the world’s largest charitable foundation, said they would continue to work together at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Bill and Melinda Gates to divorce with $146bn at stake

Bill and Melinda Gates smile at each other during an interview in Kirkland. File picture: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The announcement that Bill and Melinda Gates are divorcing will see the couple separate after 27 years of marriage.

The Microsoft co-founder and his wife, who launched the world’s largest charitable foundation, said they would continue to work together at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The pair command an estimated $146bn (€121.5bn), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, but have made no public hint of their financial plans.

The pair will remain co-chairs and trustees of the foundation, a spokesperson for the organisation wrote in an emailed statement to Bloomberg.

It is 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.

For Bill and Melinda Gates, separating assets potentially poses a bigger challenge than dividing the Bezos fortune, which was largely concentrated in Amazon stock.

Mr Gates' net worth originated with Microsoft but shares of the software-maker now probably make up less than 20% of his assets. He has shifted much of his stake into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over the years and his exact stake has not been disclosed since he left Microsoft’s board last year.

His biggest asset is Cascade Investment, a holding company he created with the proceeds of Microsoft stock sales and dividends that is 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, told Bloomberg that 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.

Bill and Melinda Gates at the Senate House at Cambridge University, after he was made an honorary Doctor of Law during a ceremony at the University. File picture
Bill and Melinda Gates at the Senate House at Cambridge University, after he was made an honorary Doctor of Law during a ceremony at the University. File picture

Meanwhile, as the pair continue to run the foundation together, Melinda’s long journey away from Bill’s shadow is set to enter a new phase.

As Reuters reports, the 56-year-old Texas-raised computer scientist has positioned herself, in a solo capacity, as an activist for women's rights.

In 2015, Ms Gates founded Pivotal Ventures, an investment company focused on women and families, while her book is centered on issues of female empowerment.

"The world is finally waking up to the fact that none of us can move forward when half of us are held back. The data is clear: empowered women transform societies," she wrote in a note about her book.

The extent of her impact will likely be determined in part by what happens to Bill’s fortune.

In their divorce filing, the spouses said they had agreed on division of assets, but did not disclose details.

In identical tweets, posted on Monday, they said had made the decision to end their marriage of 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,” they said in a statement.

“We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life.” Melinda won Bill’s heart after meeting at a work dinner, sharing a mutual love of puzzles and beating him at a maths game.

The couple’s sprawling Seattle-based foundation is easily the most influential private foundation in the world, with an endowment worth nearly $50bn (€41.6bn).

It has focused on global health and development and US education issues since incorporating in 2000.

The couple were married in 1994 in Hawaii. They met after she began working at Microsoft as a product manager in 1987.

- Bloomberg, Reuters and PA

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