The Bezos Divorce: One Lawyer Explains How to Split the World’s Biggest Fortune

Norman Vanamee

From Town & Country

  • UPDATE: The richest man in the world is officially divorced. Today, Jeff Bezos and his now ex-wife MacKenzie announced on their respective Twitter feeds that their marriage had officially been dissolved after 25 years.
  • MacKenzie announced in a Tweet that she was giving her ex-husband her interests in the Washington Post and Blue Origin as well as 75 percent of their previously shared Amazon stock.
  • The disclosure dispelled some of the mystery surrounding what is sure to be one of the most expensive-albeit amicable-divorcees in history.

Last January, Jeff Bezos, the founder and largest shareholder of Amazon, and his wife, the novelist MacKenzie Bezos, announced on Twitter that they were getting divorced after 25 years of marriage. According to Forbes, Jeff is currently worth $137 billion and is the richest man in the world. He founded Amazon the year after he and MacKenzie were married, and she was the company’s first employee.

So, who gets the china?

We asked Frederic J. Siegel, former president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and co-founder of Siegel & Kaufman, a law firm that specializes in high-net-worth divorces, how a case this size might play out. (Siegel, of course, does not represent either of the Bezoses.)

First, what did you think of that joint statement they posted on Twitter?

Usually when parties release a statement like that it means that they've been having discussions for a long time, that their lawyers and/or their public relations people are communicating in a way to minimize bad publicity, and that they want let the world know that they're planning to do the divorce in a civilized way.

Photo credit: Sara Jaye - Getty Images

Is the friendly tone too good to be true?

Probably not. Their children are younger and they have such a legacy together that it makes sense they’d want to protect it. That said, most people, start out by saying they want to have a good divorce, but then, if one party perceives that the other party is disrespecting them, the case goes bad.

What does the line we "see wonderful futures ahead as parents, friends, partners in ventures and projects" mean?

That says to me that they may have decided that the best way to go forward is to be involved in the company together, retain whatever interest they have in it, keep it out of the divorce, and proceed as business partners instead of selling assets and paying her a lump sum. By doing that, they would avoid months of forensic accounting and all the accompanying expense, inconvenience, and publicity.

Doesn’t she obviously just get half?

Washington State is a community property jurisdiction which generally means that assets acquired during the marriage are divided by the parties. If they do not have a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement and they cannot reach agreement amongst themselves a court will have to make the determination as to what each party receives. Community property in Washington does not mean equal but rather what is “just and equitable” under all the circumstances. If a court were to determine that Mr. Bezos was much more responsible for the accumulation of wealth, for example, that could be a basis for his wife not to get 50 percent of the assets of the marriage.

What if there is a prenup?

Prenups were not as prevalent in 1993 [when the couple got married] as they are today. If they did do one, they could not have possibly conceived that the company would create this kind of wealth. So whatever the agreement might've said then about what would happen, it might not be considered fair today if it gave her minimal assets. The circumstance is amazing, so a prenup might not be enforceable.

Are we sure they'll divorce in Washington state?

Probably, but they have five homes, so they could theoretically get divorced in New York or California. No matter where they do it, I would be very surprised if the parties didn't settle because of the magnitude of money and potential damage a public divorce could have to the company.

What about alimony?

I cannot imagine any possible scenario in which she gets alimony. Consider the net amount involved here. Even if she only got, say, a $1 billion dollars, the interest alone would pay for any conceivable lifestyle and family expenses.

How many lawyers do you think are working on this?

Matrimonial law firms tend to be on the smaller side, but my guess is that in this case each side would have a main lawyer who is a quarterback leading a team of partners and other lawyers working on it. So maybe each side has four additional family lawyers plus many paralegals and accountants. They would also be working very closely with corporate counsel at Amazon as well the company’s accountants. In other words, if you were getting everybody in a room, you would need a big room.

Along with personal lawyers and bankers, who else will they hire?

They probably have a PR firm to manage the press. If MacKenzie let Jeff manage most of the money, then she’ll probably want to get some top financial advisors because she’ll all of a sudden have control over $20, $30, $50 billion. Plus a philanthropy expert to help to divide up any foundations. They might talk to a therapist about the best way to minimize the effect on the children and come up with a co-parenting schedule.

Photo credit: Kevin Mazur - Getty Images

What if they disagree on how much they have?

They could agree to hire a neutral forensic accountant, someone that everybody respects, and let that person come up with a value of their assets. When you do that, you're usually not bound by the number, but the idea is that if the accountant is working for both parties they'll do the right thing for both parties. It's more likely that each side would get their own forensic accountant and then try to reconcile the different numbers.

What if one of them is mad?

Even if somebody engages in bad conduct during a marriage, most states, including Washington and New York, are “no fault.” That means there is no way to get a larger distribution of marital property by proving fault.

When divorce attorneys go to sleep at night, do they dream about getting the call to work on this case? Is it the Super Bowl?

It will definitely go into the record books. There are challenges when you're dealing with these kinds of numbers and issues and personalities, but it does put you in a different discussion in terms of future cases. It's a double-edged sword because you're under a microscope. You better win.

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