Lockdown has not been easy for billionaires, even Bill Gates. News that the fourth richest couple in the world – worth some $125 billion – are heading for a divorce must have been an exciting moment for US lawyers. The more money at stake, the messier the split.
The pair have hauled in top brass to manage proceedings: on Melinda’s side are Robert Cohen and Sherri Anderson – who have a host of A-list clients under their respective belts, including Ivana Trump, Uma Thurman and Jeff Bezos. Bill is leaning on Robert Olsen and Ted Billbe, who made MacKenzie Scott the world’s fourth-richest woman after her marriage to the Amazon founder ended two years ago.
The Gateses calling time on their vows after 27 years has kickstarted what may yet become the most expensive divorce in history. Because the more a super-rich couple fights, the richer the lawyers and tax accountants at their disposal get.
A media executive friend who divorced after 30 years explains: "There are three buckets when it comes to divorce: anger, blame and sadness. Lawyers will do all they can to keep it in anger and blame."
"It’s not level playing fields in this sector," says Charlotte Ransom, CEO of Netwealth, who advises predominantly high-net-worth women. "Wealth can be tied up in trusts and offshore companies. The business can be part of a partnership."
The super-rich didn’t get that way without understanding how money works. Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos married educated, intelligent women. "But I have clients who haven’t worked out that a husband who can afford a £10 million home in central London probably has a lot more," Ransom says.
Emotions, too, can land you a bad deal: "Women often have a particular attachment to the home because of the stability they believe it gives their kids." Clever husbands pretend to be generous by offering it up, meanwhile nabbing the Gstaad ski chalet and New York penthouse.
Of course, it’s not always the women who lose in the battle of divorce. There are plenty of men who come after the wife’s hard-earned assets, but women can be more gullible. One banker acquaintance earned millions a year in bonuses – though only ever told his wife of his base salary (roughly £150,000) and "occasionally" a good investment year. When they were getting divorced, the banker’s boss decided to call the wife and explain that she was in fact a very rich woman – helpfully providing the documents to prove it.
The reverse can happen, too: a very wealthy woman that I know never asked a single question about her extravagant banker husband’s financial affairs. Only when they divorced did she find out that he had never actually paid tax on his bonuses, and that huge debt had amassed against all of their combined assets.
The sense of shame and failure around divorce – and the idea of the world reading about your dirty laundry – has resulted in many a nervous breakdown. Naturally, the rich have an (expensive) answer for that, too.
Jan Gerber, chairman and founder of exclusive rehab clinic Paracelsus in Switzerland, says Covid-19 had brought about a 500 per cent increase in referrals, many of them because of divorce. "There seems to be a pattern of divorce emerging that is considerably higher than [among] the rest of the population," says Gerber.
"The super-rich are used to being mobile, jumping on planes, moving from house to house, with charity obligations and social activities. We thought the rich would somehow escape the worst of lockdown, but they didn’t."
Many show up at Paracelsus because there has been an ultimatum. Without work, or even a mistress, to escape to, a dependence on alcohol, drugs, online gambling or food has grown. "They come here as a last resort," he says.
How difficult it was for Melinda and Bill to share their 66,000-square-foot home in Medina, Seattle – dubbed ‘Xanadu 2.0’ – we have yet to learn. California law says it cannot be claimed by either, as they must split all assets equally, though the Gywneth Paltrow-esque Twitter announcement of their split suggests the separation had been carefully managed.
Cynical as it may sound, the timing may have been executed to maximum effect. The post-Covid drop in corporate profitability and house prices has been a big incentive to start divorce proceedings. "We see this in every recession," says Emma Gill, director of divorce and family law at Vardags, noting a 60 per cent rise in enquiries since the first lockdown. "If you can buy out your spouse cheaply, great."
The savviest are those who install a complicated tax structure ahead of time, then wait for the next downturn to file for divorce. "These are handed to court as a fait accompli. Courts are often unwilling to unravel them mostly because they don’t understand them," she says, adding that "the less financially dominant spouse often just signs on the dotted line".
The Gateses are thought not to have a prenup – but even financial agreements ahead of time are not always bulletproof. A lawyer who worked for British divorce ‘lionesses’ Lady Helen Ward and Baroness Fiona Shackleton are said to have advised a hapless young client who had married into a banking dynasty to ‘cry’ in front of the judge to negate hers. And there’s often a Rottweiler publicist on retainer to contend with; one extremely wealthy American friend, whose Hollywood producer husband was caught cheating, saw her prenup thrown into the fire when she threatened to "call my friend Oprah".
I wonder what, if anything, the Gateses will fight over? Where the ultra-wealthy are concerned, it’s anyone’s guess – but the price tag is sure to be eye-watering.