On their silver wedding anniversary two years ago, billionaire tech mogul Bill Gates tweeted to his wife, Melinda, “I can’t wait to spend 25 more years laughing together.” So it came as a shock when the pair recently announced their divorce. It’s a uniquely high-profile, high-stakes split with no prenuptial agreement that is likely to result in one of the largest divorce settlements ever.
As our New Jersey divorce lawyers can explain, there are several elements here that make this uncoupling particularly complex:
- The length of time the two were married (nearly three decades).
- The absence of a prenuptial agreement.
- The enormous size of their wealth/marital property (Bill Gates, the fourth-richest person in the world, has an estimated net worth of $146 billion).
- Their joint endeavors in philanthropy, namely the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
While the pair have three children, the youngest is 18, so child custody and support may not be factors. (The Gates’ children are reportedly slated to inherit less than 1 percent of their parents’ fortune.) Melinda Gates reportedly has not asked for spousal support. A separation agreement signed by the pair reportedly spells out the division of most assets, debts, etc.
Why the Gates’ Divorce Has So Many Shaken
Public stir over the split of billionaires like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Steve Wynn probably has as much to do with the fact that it affirms money can’t buy happiness as it does the huge dollar figures and prominence of those involved - especially when we’re talking a union that lasted decades. “If they can’t make it, what hope do the rest of us have?” some of us may ask.
Of course, money is one of the primary things couples argue about. But having so much of it that you can give away billions clearly doesn’t erase the crossroads and questions many couples face: Do we still want the same things in life? Do we still have what it takes to build a life together? Would we be better off on our own?
This is increasingly true for older couples. While the rate of divorce has been falling among all types of couples, there is one exception: Those older than 50. Most people who divorce do so within the first few years of marriage, but this generation of people 50+ are increasingly deciding to forge separate paths after decades together. The phenomenon has even earned its own name: Gray divorce.
Psychologists note a few possible reasons for the trend. People are living longer and healthier at older ages. That means they’re seeing more opportunities, and they don’t want to compromise on happiness. Furthermore, people can increasingly afford to separate. With more two-income households than ever, people have fewer financial constraints that might otherwise force them to stay together even if they’re deeply unsatisfied.
Prenups, Postnups and Separation Agreements
The lack of a prenuptial agreement in this case is somewhat perplexing, given that Bill Gates, co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft, was already a billionaire when he married computer scientist Melinda French in 1993.
A prenup is a legal agreement couples can choose to sign prior to marriage to establish what will happen financially if they divorce or one of them dies. It can also help set financial expectations for the marriage.
Our family law attorneys recommend prenuptial agreements for most couples - even those without massive fortunes - because it modifies the default rules set in place by state legislature and case law, giving you more control and protection of certain assets. It also makes the separation and divorce process much faster and smoother because many of the questions of how marital property and debts will be divided have already been answered.
We recognize prenups are still somewhat stigmatized. Sometimes, couples will realize the value of one later in the relationship and opt for something called a postnuptial agreement. This is similar to a prenuptial agreement, except it’s drafted and signed after a couple marries. It’s important in either case that both parties be represented by an experienced family law attorney to ensure the binding contract is fair and enforceable.
What the Gates’ do have is a “separation agreement”.The pair, asserting the marriage is “irretrievably broken,” are divorcing in Washington state, which recognizes legal separation. New Jersey does not. That said, a well-executed separation agreement can provide clarification for matters like child custody, parenting time, child support, alimony, use of shared assets and responsibilities for debts. It is a private legal document signed by a couple when they decide to live separately. It can be a precursor to divorce or used as a way to protect each party’s legal rights while the two are working to repair their marriage. Separation agreements can offer a road map of what divorce will look like should the couple decide to proceed. The Gates’ separation agreement reportedly stipulates how the pair will divide their assets and debts if/when they go through with divorce.
Just as with prenuptial agreements and postnuptial agreements, each party should have their own lawyer for drafting and reviewing a New Jersey separation agreement to ensure the contract is equitable and enforceable.
Although divorces are rarely as high-profile or high-stakes as this one, elements of it can serve as lessons of warning or empowerment to others preparing to embark on a similar new chapter. Whatever challenges you are facing with your divorce, our Monmouth family law attorneys can help ensure your rights, financial stability and best interests are protected.
Call Rozin|Golinder Law, LLC today at (732) 810-0034 for a free and confidential consultation.