The Gates divorce puts the spotlight on a secretive fortune

The fortune of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates exceeds the size of Morocco’s annual economy, combines the value of Ford, Twitter and Marriott International and is triple the endowment of Harvard. While few know how their wealth will be divided in the divorce, one thing is clear: breaking it up can’t be easy.

Gates built one of the great fortunes in human history when he founded Microsoft in 1975 with Paul Allen. The Gateses’ net worth is estimated to be more than $US124 billion ($161 billion), and includes assets as varied as trophy real estate, public company stocks and rare artefacts.

Melinda and Bill Gates announced last week they are divorcing after 27 years of marriage. Credit:Getty Images

There’s a big stake in the luxury Four Seasons hotel chain. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and ranch land, including Buffalo Bill’s historic Wyoming ranch. There are billions of dollars’ worth of shares in companies like AutoNation and Waste Management. There’s a beachfront mansion in Southern California. And one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

“The amount of money and the diversity of assets that are involved in this divorce boggles the imagination,” said David Aronson, a lawyer who has represented wealthy clients in divorce cases. “There have rarely been cases that are even close to this in size.”

Only the 2019 divorce between the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his now ex-wife, the novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, was bigger. Bezos had an estimated fortune of $US137 billion, though mostly in Amazon stock, and Scott kept 4 per cent of Amazon’s shares, worth $US36 billion at the time.

But Gates has for decades been diversifying his holdings; he owns just 1.3 per cent of Microsoft. Instead, his stock portfolio includes stakes in dozens of publicly traded companies. He is the largest private owner of farmland in the country, according to The Land Report. In addition to the Four Seasons, he has stakes in other luxury hotels and a company that caters to private jet owners. His real estate portfolio includes one of the largest houses in the country and several equestrian facilities. He owns stakes in a clean energy investment fund and a nuclear energy startup.

There is also the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Separate from the rest of the Gates fortune, with an endowment of $US50 billion, the foundation is one of the world’s largest charitable organisations and plays a uniquely important role in global public health. The endowment is in a trust and cannot be divided as part of the marital estate, though questions remain about whether it will be the main recipient of their charitable contributions once the split is complete.

The couple has a separation agreement in place, according to the divorce filing by French Gates, but the details are not disclosed. The filing asks the court to divide their real estate, personal property and debts according to the terms set forth in that agreement. Lawyers for French Gates have been working on a plan for separating some of the assets since 2019, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

Divorce lawyers not working on the Gates split say some of the personal assets could be hard to value, hard to separate and highly complex. Some of the wealth has already been divided: Soon after the announcement, $US2.4 billion worth of shares in AutoNation, Canadian National Railway and two Mexican companies belonging to the couple were transferred to French Gates — making her a billionaire in her own right.

An itemised list might be harder to come by.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was created in 2000. Today, the two serve as its co-chairs, which the foundation has said will not change after the divorce is complete.Credit:Bloomberg

Since he stepped down from day-to-day operations at Microsoft in 2008, Gates has devoted much of his time to the foundation. He also runs Gates Ventures, a firm that invests in companies working on climate change and other issues. Over the decades, Gates shed the image of a ruthless tech executive battling the US government on antitrust to be viewed as a global do-gooder. And he appears to be keenly aware of the stark contrast between the scale of his wealth and his role as a philanthropist. “I’ve been disproportionately rewarded for the work I’ve done — while many others who work just as hard struggle to get by,” he acknowledged in a year-end blog post from 2019.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was created in 2000. Today, the two serve as its co-chairs, which the foundation has said will not change after the divorce is complete.

But French Gates has recently been more public about the efforts of her other group, Pivotal Ventures, which is focused on gender equality and social progress. It remains unclear what level of resources will be at her disposal when the divorce is complete, but French Gates will most likely still wield enormous influence in the world of philanthropy.

“There’s no explanation how you get to be in this situation of privilege,” French Gates told The New York Times last year. “There’s just none.”

The New York Times

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