WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Bill and Melinda Gates, two of the most influential philanthropists in the world, said on Monday (May 3) that they are divorcing after 27 years of marriage.
“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 statement posted on Twitter.
“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.
“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,” their statement said.
In a joint petition for dissolution of marriage filed in King County Superior Court in Seattle, the couple stated: “The marriage is irretrievably broken.”
They said they had reached an agreement on how to divide their assets, though the financial details of the decision were not immediately clear.
The divorce filing, which states that the couple have no minor children, comes after the youngest of their three children is believed to have recently turned 18. The spouses asked the court to approve their agreement on division of assets but did not disclose details.
Fortune at stake
Mr Gates, 65, co-founder of Microsoft Corp, is the world’s fourth-richest person.
His wife Melinda, 56, is a former Microsoft manager who has become an outspoken advocate on global health and equality for women in her role co-running the foundation.
They will continue to work together at the massive philanthropic foundation they built to improve global health, combat climate change and bolster US education, the pair said in the statement.
Launched in 2000, the non-profit Bill and 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 US$43.3 billion (S$57.7 billion) at the end of 2019, according to the latest full-year financials shown on its website.
From 1994 to 2018, Mr Gates and his wife provided gifts of more than US$36 billion for the Seattle-based foundation, the website said.
Last year, investor Warren Buffett reported donating more than US$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.
The Gates Foundation has focused on public health, education and climate. Its initiatives include supporting development of coronavirus vaccines, diagnostic tests and medical treatments, as well as support for public radio and the manufacture of solar-powered toilets.
The couple’s divorce is the second bombshell split among the uppermost ranks of the world’s richest people in recent years, following the 2019 separation announcement of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife, Ms MacKenzie Scott.
At stake is the world’s fourth-biggest fortune, currently valued at US$145.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
The Gates’ wealth could prove more complex to carve up than 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 per cent of his assets. He has shifted much of his stake into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation over the years and his exact stake has not been disclosed since he left Microsoft’s board last year.
Mr Gates’ biggest asset is Cascade Investment, a holding company he created with the proceeds of Microsoft stock sales and dividends that is run by Mr 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.
Divorce attorney Monica Mazzei, a partner at Sideman & Bancroft LLP in San Francisco, said 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 have seen, the preference has been to split the foundation in two so that there is 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.
The pair live in Washington, which is a community property state. That means that anything acquired during a marriage is considered equally owned by both partners, explained Ms Mazzei.
It could not be determined if the two signed a pre-nuptial agreement and it is unclear how the divorce will impact their philanthropy. The Gates Foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The two met in New York in the 1980s, early into Mrs Gates’ time at Microsoft.
When deciding whether to marry her, Mr Gates made a pros and cons list on a whiteboard - Mrs Gates related how she walked into his bedroom to find him tabulating various factors in the Netflix documentary series Inside Bill’s Brain.
The couple’s philanthropy has always been deeply rooted in their relationship and marriage. The day before they wed in Hawaii, Mr Gates’ mother, Mary, who had been trying to convince him to dramatically increase his charity, gave his wife-to-be a letter that closed with the words: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Mr Gates’ mother died several months later.
But it was on a trip to Africa during their engagement that the couple decided they would become serious philanthropists.
“We fell in love with everything we saw but it’s really not at all trite to say that we really fell in love with the people,” Mrs Gates said at a Salesforce event in 2016. “It just started us on this series of questions of sort of saying to ourselves, ‘What is going on here?’”
Later on in the trip, the couple filled out a marriage questionnaire to make sure they had the same values. That was when they decided “the vast majority of resources from Microsoft would go back to society”, Mrs Gates said. “It was an easy discussion. We just thought it would be later in our lives when we got to do it.”
Through their foundation, the couple has given away more than US$50 billion.