In the midst of the continuing global Covid pandemic, escalating tensions in the Middle East, the humanitarian crisis at our southern border, rising gasoline prices and hacking of pipelines, among other events, there was one news report which trumped them all: Bill and Melinda Gates were getting a divorce! Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, and his wife, Melinda, have been married for 27 years and have three children. They have an estimated net worth of approximately $124 billion, making them amongst the wealthiest people in the world. In announcing their divorce, they simply indicated “We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in the next phase of our lives”. The Gates’ divorce comes on the heels of the recent divorce of another of the world’s wealthiest couples, namely Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and his wife Mackenzie. The Bezos’ divorce in 2019 after 25 years of marriage and four children resulted in Mackenzie receiving an estimated $37 billion settlement, largely made up of Amazon stock, out of a total net worth estimated to be $137 billion. It is noteworthy that the Gates’ did not enter into a prenuptial agreement at the time that they married in 1994 at which time Bill Gates was already believed to be the richest person in the United States. To the extent to which the Gates’ will follow the lead of the Bezos’ and reach an amicable, quick, yet lucrative, divorce settlement is to be determined. However, what these divorces demonstrate is that despite having all of the wealth in the world, as the Beatles so prophetically sang “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”.
Since its inception, the law offices of James P. Yudes have handled countless divorce cases involving high net worth couples. These types of cases often present unique issues and challenges which our over four decades of experience enable us to address. Sometimes, resolving these types of cases can be relatively simple and straightforward. The assets of the parties may be readily identifiable. Determining their value may be as easy as looking at a bank or investment statement or obtaining appraisals. In certain instances, just like Bezos and Gates who own publicly traded companies, their value is a function of the market price of the stock. It can then just be a matter of how best to divide this marital estate fairly and equitably, while enabling the parties, whether from utilizing those assets or other income streams, to enjoy a lifestyle reasonably comparable to that of the marriage. While the marriage may not have worked out, the hope is that in these sorts of scenarios, just as with the Bezos’ and Gates’, both parties will be able to move on with their lives, and share in the success that they had accrued during the course of their marriage.
Unfortunately, not all high-net-worth divorces proceed so amicably. In many instances, there are businesses involved. However, most of the time these businesses are privately owned, and not publicly traded. Usually, it is one spouse who owns and/or runs the business. If the reasons for the parties splitting up is not very “amicable”, the level of anger, if not hatred, between the parties fuels a level of mistrust, leading to disputes as to what may be going on with that business’ “value”, and the income generated therefrom. As a result, these matters can result in a hotly contested litigation, involving extensive discovery, competing financial experts, and the possibility of a trial to have the issues be decided by the court. Even in situations where there is not a level of animosity between the parties themselves, honest differences of opinion as to the value of businesses or other marital assets, the level of income, or the nature of the marital lifestyle may still exist requiring discovery, expert assistance, and financial expertise to resolve those issues. Yet the ultimate goal remains the same, and whether achieved by way of a mutual settlement or by a determination of the Court, that there is a fair and equitable division of the marital estate and an ability on the part of both parties to move forward with their post-divorce lives. Indeed, that is this firm’s goal in every divorce case we handle, and not just high net worth cases.
Getting back to the Bezos and Gates divorces. Besides our culture’s fascination with the rich and famous, there is always a question in one’s mind as to why people who have all the money in the world would ever be unhappy in their marriage and would need to end it by divorce. Indeed, high on the list as to why people get divorced are financial difficulties or disputes. However, more likely than that being the cause, those financial problems are more likely the manifestation of other reasons for the breakdown in the relationship. Whether the result of physical or emotional abuse or infidelity or simply a case of growing apart and no longer being compatible, the rich and famous are no less subject to these feelings than anyone else. Truly money cannot buy happiness. Money cannot buy me, love.