Melinda Gates could become ‘world’s second-richest woman’

Washington is one of just nine US states which uses ‘community property’ laws to divide houses between separating spouses equally

Sam Hancock
Wednesday 05 May 2021 17:38
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Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates speak at the Lincoln Centre in 2018
Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates speak at the Lincoln Centre in 2018
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Philanthropist Melinda Gates looks set to become the world’s second-richest woman after her divorce from multibillionaire Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, with court papers showing she is entitled to some $73bn (£52.4bn).

In the divorce petition she filed this week at King County superior court in Seattle, Washington, Melinda French Gates – as she now appears to want to be known after updating her social media profiles – asked for the couple’s combined $146bn (£105bn) fortune to be divided up. French is her maiden name.

The documents also reveal that the couple, who married in 1994, did not sign a prenuptial agreement – which could explain the 50-50 split. Under Washington state law, divorcing couples are expected to share their assets equally.

Currently, the richest woman in the world is L’Oreal owner Françoise Bettencourt Meyers whose inherited fortune is worth around $83bn (£59.6bn).

The Gates announced their separation on Monday via a statement on Twitter, writing: “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage.

“Over the last 27 years, we have raised three incredible children [Jennifer, 25; Rory, 21; and Phoebe, 18] and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives.

“We continue to share a belief in that mission and will continue our work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”

Questions have been raised about how the pair will continue to run their charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as a team, which is what they have said is their intention.

Prof Henry Peter, head of the Geneva Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Geneva, told the Financial Times on Tuesday the separation could lead to a total restructure.

“The ecosystem of the foundation is really based on only three trustees,” he said, referring to the Gates and fellow billionaire 90-year-old Warren Buffett – one of the trust’s biggest donors who has promised to donate 85 per cent of his $100bn (£71.8bn) remaining fortune in total.

“It will be interesting to know if [the Gates] are not married how this couple will remain at the head. It might be the right time to look at the governance.”

Meanwhile, the foundation itself released a statement in an attempt to quell any concerns the couple’s divorce might have triggered: “Bill and Melinda will remain co-chairs and trustees. No changes to their roles or the organisation are planned. They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues, and set the organisation’s overall direction.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, is captured by a drone on 4 May

The Seattle-based charity, which employs 1,600 staff, has given away $50bn (£35.9bn) to health and development projects across 135 countries since it was founded in 2000, and still has $43bn (£30.9bn) worth of assets.

It also provides support to communities struck by natural disasters. Last year, the foundation provided $1.8bn (£1.3bn) for emergency coronavirus medical supplies, PPE and vaccines – and $2bn (£1.4bn) has been earmarked to try and wipe out malaria.

The Gates estate includes their 66,000sq ft main home in Medina, overlooking Lake Washington, which is valued at $130m (£93.5m), and various holiday homes such as a $43m (£30.9m) beach house near San Diego, a $59m (£42.5) ranch in Florida and a 492-acre ranch in Wyoming.

Their main house alone was built using 500 Douglas fir trees and features no fewer than six kitchens, a 60ft swimming pool, an underwater sound system, a trampoline room, and a 2,300sq ft ballroom which seats up to 200 people.

Elsewhere, the couple are among the biggest private owners of farmland in the US, with about 242,000 acres across 18 different states – worth about $700m (£503.7m). And they own several private jets and cars, including a rare $2m (£1.4m) Porsche 959 and an electric Porsche Taycan.

Washington, where the couple reside, is one of just nine US states which enforces “community property” laws, whereby courts presume that property bought during a marriage belongs jointly to the spouses and should be divided equally. The pair are scheduled to appear in court next April.

The Gates’ split comes just shy of two years after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is the world’s richest person, separated from his wife of 25 years MacKenzie Scott. Their divorce made Ms Scott the world’s fourth-richest woman, with a $38bn (£27.3bn) fortune. They also lived in Washington state.

Ms French Gates and Ms Scott teamed up last year to launch a $30m (£21.6m) project called the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, which, according to its website, aims to “expand women’s power and influence in the US by 2030”.

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