Divorce is never easy. It’s gut wrenching, life changing, emotionally painful and fiscally draining — no more so than if there are billions of dollars in assets and reserves to be divvied up. And when you’re the fourth richest man in the world, founded a tech company that touches most people lives every day in some way, divorce after nearly three decades of marriage will bring its own set of unique challenges.
Earlier this week Bill and Melinda Gates announced that they are to go their separate ways after 27 years of weddedness — it’s not appropriate to use the phrase “wedded bliss” because clearly that is no longer the case. As my late mother used to say, you never know what goes on behind closed doors.
But the conscious uncoupling of two of the most influential people in the world means that the decision to end their marriage is indeed a very public affair.
Melinda, a philanthropist and ardent campaigner for empowering women, could be about to become the world’s second richest women, entitled to half of the $146 billion (Dh536 billion) fortune amassed by Bill from Microsoft, a company he set up in Seattle in 1975 before computing became personal, portable and potent. And because the couple’s primary residence is in Washington, their assets may be divided on a 50-50 split.
When all is finally settled, Melinda could rank behind only Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, the 67-year-old L’Oreal owner, whose inherited fortune is now worth about $83 billion (Dh30 billion).
The couple married back in 1994 and reportedly hit it off first playing Cluedo — she won then — didn’t sign a prenuptial agreement, and the divorce papers have been served in a Seattle-area court.
The couple’s staggering personal wealth includes their 7,000 square-metre main home overlooking Lake Washington — it alone is valued at a mere $130 million (Dh477 million).
Known as Xanadu 2.0 after the vast fictional estate of Charles Foster Kane in the 1941 film Citizen Kane, any potential real estate listing would no doubt mention its construction from 500 Douglas fir trees and features six kitchens. There’s a 20-metre swimming pool with an underwater sound system, a sizeable pool house that wouldn’t out of place in some of Dubai’s swankiest suburbs and, for those who wish to exercise without getting wet, there’s a trampoline room.
Xanadu 2.0 also includes a 300 square metre library with a domed roof, a ceiling that includes an engrave quote from The Great Gatsby and, on the shelves an unrivalled collection of rare books that includes the Codex Leicester, a 16th-century Leonardo da Vinci manuscript that Bill bought at auction for $31 million (Dh114 million) in 1994. The home’s ballroom can set 150 for a formal dinner, or 200 for cocktails.
The couple will also be splitting a string of holiday homes such as a $43 million (Dh158 million) oceanfront beach house near San Diego, a $59 million (Dh216 million) ranch in Florida, and a large ranch in Wyoming.
The couple own several private jets and a fleet of cars, including a rare Porsche 959 and an electric Porsche Taycan.
The Gates are also among the biggest private owners of farmland in the US, with about 100,000 hectares acres across 18 different states which is worth about $700 million (Dh2.6 billion). The land holdings are almost the size of Hong Kong.
What’s remarkable is that with so much wealth to divvy up, had the pair not embarked on an unprecedented philanthropic mission more than two decades ago, their joint wealth would be worth another $40 billion (Dh146 billion).
Their divorce also throws into question the future of the couples’ charitable efforts via the foundation, which also pulls in cash from other donors, ranging from fellow billionaire Warren Buffett to the UK government. While the couple have said they will remain co-chairs of the foundation some experts suggest the divorcing pair may have different and strongly held views about the future direction of the charity. It is a vast organisation, employing 1,600 staff based in Seattle, which has given away $50 billion (Dh183.65 billion) to projects across 135 countries since it was founded in 2000 and still has $43 billion (Dh158 billion) worth of assets.
The foundation works on projects to improve global health care, education and gender equality with big ambitions — bidding to eradicate some diseases, such as polio, completely. It also provides support in the event of natural disasters. Last year, the foundation provided $1.8 billion (Dh6.6 billion) for emergency coronavirus medical supplies, personal protective equipment and vaccines. A further $2 billion (Dh7.3 billion) has been earmarked to try and wipe out malaria.
“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” the Gates’ said in a statement that was posted to Twitter. They went on to say that they had “built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives” and that they “continue to share a belief in that mission,” but they “no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”
The couple have three children, Jennifer, 25, Rory, 21, and Phoebe, 18.
Melinda, 56, has in the past said their marriage has been “incredibly hard”, saying that Bill, 65, regularly works 16-hour days and can find it hard to make time for the family.
Bill, who cofounded Microsoft in 1975, was already a billionaire when the pair got married in 1994. He met Melinda in 1987, when she joined the company. He was 31.
Melinda said Bill spent weeks debating whether or not they should marry, and even made a list of pros and cons for marriage on a whiteboard. Now, the whiteboard will be used to add up who gets what — and what happens now.
With inputs from agencies