The Gates Divorce Is About More Than a Marriage

When the richest of the rich split up, the usual dilemmas are mixed in with the fate of enormous charitable efforts and billion-dollar stock holdings.

A fragmented photo of Bill and Melinda Gates, superimposed with fragments of money
Frederic Stevens / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

When Bill and Melinda Gates announced on Monday that they would be ending their 27-year marriage, they tweeted in tandem that they “no longer believe [they] can grow together as a couple.” The reasoning wasn’t unusual for a 21st-century divorce, but their private emotional journey has highly atypical financial implications: Between their personal holdings and the charitable foundation they started together, the amount of money they control—somewhere around $180 billion—is roughly equal to the annual GDP of Kazakhstan or Qatar.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which they launched 25 years after Bill co-founded Microsoft, is one of the biggest private charitable foundations in the world, with an endowment of about $50 billion. In a sense, the jobs of its 1,600 employees and its investments in malaria prevention and early-childhood education have rested on the bedrock of Bill and Melinda’s marriage.

While their split is not expected to affect the operations of the foundation in the short term—both of them will continue to serve as its co-chairs—there may be some uncertainty in the long term. What will happen to the money that they haven’t committed to the foundation is another unsettled question. Forbes currently estimates Bill Gates’s net worth to be about $130 billion, and that wealth is parked in a variety of places: The Gateses own more farmland in the U.S. than anyone else, Bill holds about $26 billion in Microsoft stock, and the family has a $130 million, 66,000-square-foot house with a trampoline room. When the richest of the rich divorce, the usual dilemmas of who still hangs out with which friends and where the kids go for the holidays are mixed in with the fate of enormous charitable efforts and large tracts of land.

Already, Bill has transferred nearly $2 billion worth of stock to Melinda. How the rest of the couple’s assets will be divided hasn’t yet been made public, but Melinda seems likely to end up with substantially more than $2 billion—in which case the Gateses would go from a fantastically wealthy couple that makes money decisions together to two people, each still fantastically wealthy, who make different decisions and have their own ideas. Melinda has played a central role in the Gates Foundation’s growth and once had a heated disagreement with Bill when she wanted to co-write the foundation’s annual letter, instead of him writing it alone. She also has an investment company that promotes women’s economic empowerment, and is separate from the Gates Foundation.

Another wealthy divorcée in the Seattle area, MacKenzie Scott—formerly married to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos—has already established a post-marriage blueprint that Melinda Gates might follow. In their divorce, in 2019, Scott came away with a quarter of the Amazon shares that the couple jointly owned, which worked out to roughly $38 billion at the time and has since appreciated to about $58 billion; in a philanthropic spree late last year, she gave away $4 billion.

In one sense, the Gates divorce is similar in that each involves tech billionaires splitting up after more than 25 years of marriage. But unlike Scott at the time of her divorce, Melinda Gates already has widespread name recognition, and through her and Bill’s work for the foundation, their partnership has become a brand of its own. Their shared fame lends their divorce the feeling of a cultural institution dissolving, kind of like the recent breakup of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, just with less reality TV and more gentle-colored sweaters.

It’s not normal for so much to depend on two people maintaining a loving, supportive relationship. Experts who study modern marriage, such as the researcher Eli Finkel and the psychotherapist Esther Perel, have pointed out how today’s married couples expect more from each other than couples did in the past. Today’s ideal partner is somehow simultaneously your lover, your best friend, your equal co-parent, and your life coach. Maybe it asks too much of marriage to expect your spouse to co-chair a billion-dollar philanthropic enterprise with you too.

In the bigger picture, the attention paid to the Gates divorce in part reflects how much power and money is concentrated in the two of them. For all the good that they have done—and, with their future donations, will do—maybe it’s not a great idea, from a society-wide perspective, to have two non-democratically elected people making such consequential choices about global well-being. “Our society has made the colossal error of allowing wealth to purchase the chance to make quasi-governmental decisions as a private citizen,” Anand Giridharadas, the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, told Reuters in an interview about the divorce. If that weren’t the case, maybe the relationship turmoil of two people wouldn’t have such high stakes.