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The fourth wealthiest person on the planet, the sandy-haired, blue-eyed and bespectacled Microsoft founder, aged 65, is worth a cool £94billion or $130billion. That includes Bill’s £19billion in Microsoft stock and a selection of homes, estates and ranches across the globe that would outswank a Bond villain. Then there are the private jets, rare cars, artwork, hotels and an investment portfolio that would put many small countries to shame. It’s a divorce likely to produce a pay-out to eclipse the one Amazon chief Jeff Bezos made last year. Worth £115billion when he filed for divorce in 2019, Bezos ultimately paid only – only! – £28billion to his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie Scott, making her the world’s fourth wealthiest woman.
Melinda Gates, 56, appears poised to pocket substantially more as she carves up husband Bill’s fortune.
If there is any rancour or resentment behind the split, it was certainly well hidden in their dispassionate joint statement posted on Twitter announcing their split on Sunday.
“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” they said.
The couple, who founded one of the world’s biggest charitable foundations, pledged to continue that work together, but confessed: “We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”
It’s the civilised, measured response we might expect from the philanthropists, who share three children: Jennifer, 25, Rory, 21, and Phoebe, 18.
But will the ultimate power couple enjoy a Goop-style “conscious uncoupling”, or will there be blood on the ground once America’s legal attack dogs get their teeth stuck into the meatiest of break-up bones?
“I have no use for money,” Gates once said, though perhaps what he meant was that he has so much money he can’t possibly spend it all, because he has certainly found multiple ways to use his money in the past. Yesterday, it was revealed he has hired his 97-year-old billionaire lawyer friend Charlie T Munger to represent him in the divorce. Munger is not a family lawyer. His expertise is in business, philanthropy and real estate.
But if anyone is looking to fall out, there’s so much to fight over – not least of all who gets their dogs, Oreo and Nilla. Also up for grabs is their £95million smart house nestled on the shore of Lake Washington, near Seattle.
With six kitchens, 24 bathrooms, changeable digital artwork on the walls, GPS tracking of all residents, an indoor 60ft pool, garage space for 23 cars, trampoline room and a private beach with sand imported from St Lucia in the Caribbean, the 66,000sq ft home known as Xanadu 2.0 is clearly too small for the both of them.
Who gets Grand Bogue Caye, the £18million 314-acre private island off the coast of Belize rumoured to have been bought by Bill? There’s also their £42million 30-acre compound in Wellington, Florida, with horse ranches to indulge daughter Jennifer, an award-winning equestrian, and yet another horse ranch in Wyoming.
In California, Gates owns the £16million 228-acre Rancho Paseana with its own racetrack, and a £31million six-bedroom oceanfront villa in Del Mar. The two Bombardier BD 700 jets that each seat 19 people and cost £32million apiece will be easier to divide his and hers private planes.
Among Gates’ many computers is a simple handwritten notebook he bought for £22million in 1994. Known as the Leicester Codex, it once belonged to Leonardo Da Vinci, and is filled with his scientific discoveries.
Gates has said that he hates to shop for himself, and does not like overspending on clothes and jewellery, but that hasn’t prevented a few personal indulgences.
Alongside the digital art on his walls hangs a Winslow Homer painting worth an estimated £43million, and originals by Andrew Wyeth. His collection of vintage cars includes rare Porches, a Jaguar XJ6 and a Ferrari 348.
His investments include fortunes in Coca-Cola, Berkshire Hathaway and the Canadian National Railway, plus several Four Seasons hotels, and the Ritz Carlton hotel in San Francisco.
Yet the couple would be even wealthier if they hadn’t already given away so much of their fortune. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, founded in 2000, has £35billion in assets, not counting the £40billion it has already handed to causes including the eradication of polio and malaria, improving childhood nutrition, and bringing vaccines to impoverished nations.
Gates and fellow billionaire Warren Buffett jointly launched The Giving Pledge in 2010, promising to give away the majority of their fortune. Despite their split, Bill and Melinda have promised to continue their philanthropic efforts together.
Her divorce filing in the Superior Court of Washington in King County reveals the marriage is “irretrievably broken” and makes it clear there is no prenup, but some of the groundwork for dividing up their fortune has been covered in a “separation contract” – details of which remain sealed.
Though the reason for their split remains a mystery, Melinda has previously hinted at the pressures produced by her husband’s workaholic lifestyle. “Believe me, I can remember some days that were so incredibly hard in our marriage where you thought, ‘Can I do this?'” she said in 2019.
But Gates stepped down as chairman of Microsoft in 2014, and left the company’s board in 2020, enabling the couple to spend more time together. And perhaps therein lies the problem. It’s clear that he had commitment issues at the start. Before proposing to Melinda, he drew up a list of pros and cons for marriage on a whiteboard.
“When he was having trouble making the decision about getting married, he was incredibly clear that it was not about me,” she said. “It was about, ‘Can I get the balance right between work and family life?'” He explained: “We cared a lot for each other and there were only two possibilities: either we were going to break up or we were going to get married.”
Gates founded Microsoft in 1975, and met Texas-born Melinda Ann French, the daughter of an aerospace engineer and a housewife, when she joined the company as a product manager in 1987 – the year Bill became the world’s youngest billionaire. He was 31, and she was 22. They dated for seven years, and Melinda rose to become Microsoft’s general manager.
They wed in 1994 on a golf course on the island of Lanai in Hawaii.
Their divorce in a windowless Seattle courtroom will be less glamorous.
The Gates’ three children won’t be worried about their inheritance: Bill has previously said that each will only get $10million (£7.2million) because bequeathing them a fortune was “not a favour”.
He explained: “It distorts anything they might do, creating their own path. This money is dedicated to helping the poorest. They know that, they are proud of that.”
If the couple divide their assets equally, Bill will drop to No. 17 in the Forbes billionaire rankings. Unsurprisingly, Melinda is not asking for any spousal support.
The couple’s divorce filing asks for a trial date in April 2022, but the notoriously private couple are expected to settle their differences behind closed doors. And they have many doors to choose from.
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