When a couple in an equitable-distribution state doesn’t agree to a settlement, it gets worked out in court, and the judge considers a variety of criteria. Frost says that generally, the longer the marriage, the closer the split will be to 50-50. But, she says, “if you’re divvying up 20 billion, and you’re getting 1 billion and someone else is getting 19 … a judge might say that’s enough for you.” Even if $1 billion isn’t equal, it’s still plenty to live on, the reasoning goes.
After the Bezoses announced their divorce, allegations surfaced that Jeff Bezos may have been having an affair, but Frost says affairs have little if any bearing on how judges divvy up assets. In New Jersey, she says, “an affair would not affect distribution of property unless one could prove that the dallying spouse used marital assets to further [the] affair.” If that were proved, the cheater would owe the cheated 50 percent of the money spent on the affair.
In the eyes of a judge, a lot can hinge on how responsible each spouse was for earning the money they share. This can lead to some amusing arguments in court. In a post about the divorces of the super-wealthy, Frost discussed the example of an oil executive in Oklahoma who found himself in the strange situation of, she says, downplaying his role in the success of his company—because if the court determined that he was in fact deserving of credit as a superb leader, increases in the value of the business during the marriage would be up for grabs in court.
Sometimes strategies the wealthy use to keep their money during a divorce are outright devious. “We’ve definitely had those types of cases where people try to hide money on the Isle of Man, in Gibraltar, and there’s another island off of Africa they hide things in,” Frost says. She says that’s not as much a concern with divorces between public figures like the Bezoses, because with all eyes on them, they probably aren’t trying to outfox the IRS by stashing money somewhere.
In more modest divorces, the determination of alimony payments can have tremendous effects on spouses’ and children’s basic well-being. Not so much for the super-wealthy. “The reality is, if you have a billion, you probably don’t need alimony, because one of the factors in getting support or alimony is what is your need,” Frost says. She thinks it’s unlikely that Jeff Bezos would be ordered to issue payments to MacKenzie Bezos after they’re divorced.
Still, support payments can be contentious when the sum of money at stake is so large. In one divorce that was settled in 2015, the (now ex-) wife of a hedge-fund billionaire requested $1 million a month for living expenses, including $6,800 a month for groceries and $60,000 a month for paying a private staff. (The full details of the settlement weren’t made public, so it’s unknown how much she got.) Meanwhile, around the same time, the husband of a Walmart heiress was pushing for $400,000 a month in support payments, instead of the $30,000 a month he had agreed to in a prenup.