Billionaire benefactors Bill and Melinda Gates, co-founders of one of the world's largest private charitable foundations, filed for divorce on Monday after 27 years of marriage but pledged to continue their philanthropic work together.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become one of the most powerful and influential forces in global public health, spending more than $50 billion over the past two decades to bring a business approach to combating poverty and disease.
The Gates have backed widely praised programs in malaria and polio eradication, child nutrition and vaccines. The foundation last year committed some $1.75 billion to COVID-19 relief.
In a joint petition for dissolution of marriage, the couple asserted their legal union was "irretrievably broken," but said they had reached agreement on how to divide their marital assets. No details of that accord were disclosed in the filing in King County Superior Court in Seattle.
Bill Gates, 65, who co-founded Microsoft Corp, and his spouse, Melinda French Gates, 56, met after she joined the software giant as a product manager, and they dated for a few years before marrying in January 1994 in Hawaii.
"After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage," the two said in a joint statement posted on each of their individual Twitter accounts.
"We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in the next phase of our lives. We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life," they said.
The divorce petition, which states that the couple have no minor children, comes after the youngest of their three offspring recently turned 18.
Launched in 2000, the nonprofit Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ranks as the largest private philanthropic foundation in the United States and one of the world's biggest, with net assets of $43.3 billion at the end of 2019, according to the latest full-year financials shown on its website.
From 1994 through 2018, the couple gifted more than $36 billion to the Seattle-based foundation, the website said.
Last year, investor Warren Buffett reported donating more than $2 billion of stock from his Berkshire Hathaway Inc to the Gates Foundation as part of previously announced plans to give away his entire fortune before his death.
'NO CHANGES TO THEIR ROLES'
In their divorce petition, the couple asks the court "to dissolve our marriage" and to divide their communal property, business interests and liabilities "as set forth in our separation contract," though that accord was not made public.
Bill Gates is ranked No. 4 on the Forbes list of the world's wealthiest individuals, with an estimated $124 billion fortune.
In a separate statement, the Gates Foundation said the couple would remain as co-chairs and trustees of the organization.
"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," the foundation's statement said.
The split comes two years after another leading Seattle-based billionaire and philanthropist, Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos, said that he and his then-wife, MacKenzie, were getting divorced.
At least one critic of billionaire benefactors cited the Gates' split as a cautionary tale in the wisdom of concentrating so much sway over global humanitarian issues under the control of super-wealthy individuals.
"The Gates divorce will do more than upend a family's life. It will ramify into the worlds of business, education, public health, civil society, philanthropy, and beyond," Anand Giridharadas, author of the book "Winners Take All" told Reuters.
"That is because our society has made the colossal error of allowing wealth to purchase the chance to make quasi-governmental decisions as a private citizen," he said.
Gates dropped out of Harvard University to start Microsoft with school chum Paul Allen in 1975. Gates owned 49% of Microsoft at its initial public offering in 1986, which made him an instant multimillionaire. With Microsoft's explosive growth, he soon became one of the world's wealthiest individuals.
After an executive tenure in which he helped transform the company into one of the world's leading technology firms, Gates stepped down as CEO of Microsoft in 2000 to focus on philanthropy. He remained chairman until 2014 and left the company's board in March 2020.
Known in the technology industry as an acerbic and ruthless competitor, Gates drew the ire of rivals and eventually the U.S. government for Microsoft's business practices.
The software giant was convicted of antitrust violations in the late 1990s. But the verdict was overturned on appeal, and the company then settled the case out of court.
Gates' public persona softened into an avuncular elder statesman as he turned his attention to philanthropy, and he has largely steered clear of the many controversies currently roiling the technology business.
Melinda French Gates, who recently added her maiden name on most of her websites and social media, was raised in Dallas and studied computer science and economics at Duke University before joining Microsoft.
In 2015 she founded Pivotal Ventures, an investment company focused on women and families, and in 2019 published a book, "The Moment of Lift," centered on female empowerment.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER (FA):
Bill and Melinda Gates are getting a divorce. A statement released by the billionaire philanthropist couple reads in part, “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we’ve made the decision to end our marriage. Over the last 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.”
MALE ANNOUNCER (MA):
That statement then goes on to say, “We will continue our work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”
Joining us tonight is high-profile divorce lawyer and author of the best-selling book, “The 1% Divorce – When Titans Clash.” Dror Bikel is here. Dror, great to have you on CP24 tonight. Thanks for being here.
When you heard the news that Bill and Melinda Gates are breaking up, were you sort of, as a lawyer, salivating at the opportunity of getting onto a case like that?
DROR BIKEL (DB):
Well, I won’t lie, it’s not a bad case for a divorce lawyer. But what’s interesting about the case is actually not their marital assets but what’s not part of the marital estate, which is their foundation. The foundation, which has about a $50 billion endowment, is actually owned by the trust that Melinda Gates and Bill Gates are the trustees of.
They don’t own those monies, that endowment. The trust owns it. They just control it. So, the interesting part of the divorce is actually the assets that are not part of the divorce. What’s going to happen to their foundation?
Between the two of them, do you think it’s just going to be a 50/50 split, and how much are we talking about here?
They’re worth around $130 billion. Given the length of the marriage, it is reasonable that they share their assets equally. They have three children together.
But what’s interesting is this was likely planned for some time. Bill Gates resigned from the Board of Microsoft several years ago. Their youngest child is 17, right abutting the age of emancipation. They also in their statement said they had been working on their relationship for a long time, so it seems like this was some time coming.
And Dror, I was sort of fascinated by the statement because it sounds so polite, so together, almost. You know, divorce can be acrimonious and ugly, but the statement sounded like they’re going to maintain some sort of semblance of a relationship.
Yeah. The new divorce lingo is “conscious uncoupling.” Gwyneth Paltrow, right? So, yeah, it seems like they want to do this amicably. Hopefully, they will.
Just like Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, it was very amicable. It looks like the Gates want to follow that model, do this outside the court, no name calling, disparagement, hostility, acrimony. They want to put that aside, it seems like, and move together towards an amicable divorce.
So, then, is this a financially sound decision if it’s not emotional?
There’s so much money to go around. Nobody’s going to be without money upon this divorce. He’s one of the wealthiest men in the world. There’s $130 billion. You can’t spend that money in multiple lifetimes.
Likely, most of that money will go to their foundation. The interesting part of this divorce is, again, who controls the foundation? What’s also interesting is that there are three trustees: Melinda Gates, Bill Gates, and actually Warren Buffett. So, I’m wondering if he’s the tiebreaker. If there’s a disagreement between Bill and Melinda, is Warren Buffett going to have the final say? We don’t know. It depends on what the trust agreement says.
Dror, why is it that at this level that you typically don’t see too much combativeness? The Bezos split, for example, was relatively pain free as well. This one appears to be going that way. Why is that, generally?
First of all, there’s so much money. It’s in bad taste, I think, to fight over billions and billions of dollars. The courts don’t want to see that run through the court system. That’s number one.
Number two, these people are very concerned about their personal brands. Just like Kardashian and Kanye West, their personal brands are extremely important, and they want to keep their brands clean. If there’s a lot of namecalling, a lot of accusations, and a lot of acrimony, they’re going to soil their brands, and that could be a hurdle in trying to raise money, for example, for their foundation. So, they want to do this amicably without the hostility and the acrimony, for sure.
All right. So much at stake. Dror Bikel, thanks for being on CP24 tonight to break it down for us. Great to chat with you.
Thanks so much for having me.