Ruminations on the Divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates

William Henry Gates III (globally knows and Bill Gates) is a 66-year-old American businessman, philanthropist, and software developer.  In 1975, along with his friend Paul Allen, Gates founded Microsoft.  Microsoft became the largest software programming company in the world.

On January 1, 1994, Gates married Melinda French, a former general manager at Microsoft.  Together Bill and Melinda Gates have three adult children and formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  This non-profit is reported to be the world’s largest private charity with over $30 billion in assets.

On May 3, 2021, Melinda Gates filed for divorce in Washington State saying the marriage was irretrievably broken.  She does not request spousal support.  Washington is a community property state.

News of the Gates’s divorce made headlines around the world with numerous speculations including whether there was or was not a pre-nuptial agreement.  Some speculating that there was none because it doesn’t appear in court filings.  Some speculating that there was a one, but the two had already made their marital settlement agreement, so any pre-nuptial agreement did not have to be part of a public record.

Had Bill and Melinda been residents of California, they also would have been subjected to community property laws.  Here, if a pre-nup existed, their divorce settlement agreement would be based on that - unless either party legally challenged the pre-nup and it was found to be void.  If there were no pre-nup, then both parties would be entitled to one-half of the community assets.  Community assets (as well as community debts) are those that accrued during the marriage.  Alternately, all assets accrued prior to the marriage (or after marital separation) are considered the sole property of the spouse who accrued it.

Here is where things begin to get complicated.  Bill started Microsoft in 1975, 19 years before his marriage to Melinda.  The first issue would be how much of Microsoft is community property and how much of it is Bill’s sole property.  The community earns an interest on one spouse’s sole property, if community assets are used toward the sole-property assets.  A community asset would also include the work product of the spouse.

When major assets are involved in a dissolution, it is never in one’s best interests to skimp on legal representation – especially certified experts in family law.  These specialists will also know which sub-specialists to hire depending on the forms of assets, such as pensions, stocks, personal businesses, and real estate.

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