Bill and Melinda Gates' £105bn divorce settlement could be the most expensive ever

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Laurence Dodds
·4 min read
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The couple announced their separation on Twitter - REUTERS
The couple announced their separation on Twitter - REUTERS

Bill and Melinda Gates’s divorce could become the most expensive in history, as the pair bring in the lawyers to divvy up the Microsoft founder’s gargantuan fortune.

The couple announced on Monday that they would split after nearly 30 years of marriage, saying that they no longer believed they could “grow together” during the “next phase” of their lives.

Mr Gates, 65, who completed his own uncoupling from Microsoft last year by stepping down from its board after 45 years, is currently the world’s 4th richest person according to Bloomberg, with an estimated net worth of $146bn (£105bn).

Since divorce laws in their home state of Washington tend to place equal ownership on all assets acquired since marriage, that could make for a settlement even bigger than the $36bn reportedly awarded to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s wife Mackenzie Scott.

Mr Bezos and Ms Scott, whose 25-year union came in just two years shy of the Gates’, agreed not to split their then-$131bn fortune equally but nevertheless broke records with their deal.

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Ms Scott granted Mr Bezos all of her stake in the Washington Post and his space company Blue Origin, while Mr Bezos got 75pc of their co-owned Amazon stock and voting rights over all of it.

That left her with a 4pc stake worth roughly $38bn at the time. She has since cashed out some of the money for charity and has pledged to distribute most of it to non-profits, with philanthropy experts describing her giving as remarkable.

Ms Scott married Mr Bezos while they were still working at the hedge fund DE Shaw, and was there to help him found Amazon, giving her a stake in everything that happened since.

By contrast, Melinda and Bill Gates were wed in 1994, almost 20 years after Microsoft’s beginning in 1975 and eight years after its public float in 1986. Their honeymoon was barely over when Mr Gates became America’s richest person, with $9.4bn, thanks to the growing dominance of Windows in homes and offices across the world. The couple, who have three children, are not believed to have signed a prenuptial agreement.

Since then Mr Gates has given $35.8bn in Microsoft stock to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is jointly run by the couple and is the world’s largest charitable organisation with an endowment of $49.8bn.

The investor Warren Buffett has also made donations of $27.3bn, supporting the charity’s prolific grants to medical research, malaria prevention and, in 2020, finding a vaccine for Covid-19.

Those gifts belong to the Foundation and would not be affected by the divorce. Control of the body could change if Mr and Mrs Gates wish it to, but on Monday, they vowed to keep working together.

That leaves their commercial interests. If the Gates follow the Bezos footsteps, Ms Gates might walk away with 25pc of the 103.4m Microsoft shares the family owns, equivalent to $6.5bn on their own.

Yet unlike Mr Bezos, whose wealth is almost entirely wrapped up his 11pc stake in Amazon, Mr Gates now only owns about 1pc of Microsoft, worth $26.1bn and representing just under one fifth of his total fortune.

Instead he has diversified into numerous industries through his holding company, Cascade Investment, founded in 1995 with the proceeds of a Microsoft stock sale and now worth between $49bn and $51bn, according to PitchBook and the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute.

The firm manages Mr Gates's investments in promising start-ups such as Beyond Meat and the scientists' social network ResearchGate.

Its biggest assets reportedly include $11.7bn worth of shares in the tractor giant John Deere, $11.6bn in Arizona-based waste and recycling company Republic Services, $10.9bn in Canadian National Railway, and $4.7bn in the Swiss flavour and fragrance maker Givaudan. It is also said to own 47pc of the Four Seasons hotel chain.

Bloomberg further estimates that $58.7bn of the Gates family’s worth is in cash, saying that he has received more than $50bn in stock throughout his life.

There is also some real estate that is about to be sized up by divorce lawyers. The Gates have a huge waterfront estate near Seattle called Xanadu 2.0, with six kitchens, six fireplaces and 24 bathrooms as well as computer-controlled lights. It is thought to be worth about $131m.

Mr Gates has also reportedly spent about $37m on a horse farm and other property in Florida (their 25-year-old daughter, Jennifer, is a champion showjumper), and is said to have purchased Grand Bogue Caye, a small island in Belize, for $25m or more.

Records suggest that Mr Gates owns two private jets worth perhaps $45m apiece, as well as a collection of Porsches, artworks by Andrew Wyeth and George Bellows, and one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks.