On May 3, well-known philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates announced they were ending their marriage after 27 years. Within her petition for divorce, Melinda Gates cited that the parties do not have a prenuptial agreement, but are asking the court to divide their assets pursuant to the terms of a mutually agreed upon separation agreement.
Presently, the terms of the separation agreement are unknown and are the cause of much speculation with media analysts. As a divorce attorney, my first thought went to the separation agreement, but then my focus shifted to the future of the Gates Foundation. More specifically, given their long history of charitable action through their foundation, I was concerned their divorce would put an end to their philanthropic efforts.
Bill and Melinda Gates created the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. The foundation contributes money and support to fight a multitude of problems such as climate change, poverty, gender inequality and, most recently, COVID-19. It is estimated since 2000 the foundation has spent over $53 billion to combat, “poverty, disease and inequity around the world,” according to its website. In 2020, the foundation donated over $1 billion to fight the spread of COVID-19. Money from the foundation went to assist with COVID-19 testing along with development and distribution of vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus.
According to candid.org, the Gates Foundation is the largest private charitable organization (i.e. a charitable entity that does not accept funds from the public) in the United States. The foundation, however, has locations not only in the United States, but also in India, China, Europe and Africa. According to the foundation’s website, the foundation has funded grantees in 48 states and the District of Columbia, and funded work in 135 countries in 2019 alone. More impressive, the foundation has already funded over 230 grantees in 2021. In addition, it is estimated that the foundation holds over $40 billion in assets.
At present, the Gates are indicating that both parties will remain co-chairs and trustees of the foundation despite the ending of their marriage. As a divorce attorney who works with divorcing or divorced individuals on a daily basis, I can say the Gates’ decision to continue to work together is extremely rare. For one, it is difficult for some divorced individuals to put aside feelings that potentially contributed to the divorce in the first place.
As a result, negativity can bleed into daily dealings and poison even the most benign conversations. In addition, divorced couples continuing to have close financial ties with each other following the termination of the marriage is uncommon. Many Ohio courts prefer couples make a complete financial break. The reason being, is a “clean break” prevents the divorcees from hovering over one another’s future financial decisions.
At this time, the Gateses do not appear to be concerned about making financial decisions for the foundation together as they have chosen to maintain their longstanding roles within the foundation.
Hopefully, in maintaining these current roles they will continue to work toward helping people live healthy, productive lives.
Andrew Zashin writes about law for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is a co-managing partner with Zashin & Rich, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.