When Bill and Melinda Gates recently announced their intent to divorce, the announcement may have caught many by surprise. Yet as more information surfaces, it appears that shock and surprise may have been the most surprising part of the divorce. As famous and public as the couple is, they managed to keep their plans private for months, likely well over a year.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Melinda Gates had been meeting with divorce attorneys since October 2019. That’s more than a year and a half before the couple filed their divorce papers. So, what happened in the intervening 19 months?
The divorce papers refer to a separation agreement
Many reporters were surprised to learn the couple did not have a prenuptial agreement in place. As some explained, Bill Gates was already extremely wealthy by the time he and Melinda married. It would not have been unusual for him to have insisted upon a prenuptial agreement.
Instead, the lack of a prenup meant a divorcing couple needs to divide their assets. Of course, when the couple is Bill and Melinda Gates, those assets are considerable. Because divorce proceedings are generally public, the divorce could expose their many business interests, real estate investments, holdings and other assets.
However, Business Insider reports that the divorce papers refer multiple times to a separation agreement. One expert suggested the contract likely took more than a year to draft, but it would allow the Gates to maintain a greater deal of privacy.
While the laws for divorce vary by state, the separation agreement in Washington:
- Is a private document, rather than a public one, and allows the divorcing couple to protect their privacy
- Would require a thorough exploration of all the couple’s assets and debts, likely entailing pages upon pages of spreadsheets
- Needs to distinguish marital property from separate property
- Assigns values to all the assets
- Sets forth a plan for dividing the estate
In short, the separation agreement allows the Gates to keep the details of their property hidden from the public gaze.
What are the benefits of a separation agreement?
The privacy afforded by a separation agreement is one key benefit. That may have been enough of a reason for the Gates to draft theirs. But the fact it is a private document is not its only benefit. While many couples draft separation agreements when they know they’re headed toward divorce, they can also:
- Establish guidelines for couples who are unsure about divorce and wish to try separation
- Cut down on the amount of time the court must spend on a divorce, since the contract can address many of the issues the court must decide
- Allow couples to retain the control and flexibility of any mediated or negotiated settlement
- Reduce costs when compared to courtroom proceedings
Although the laws differ, many of the same principles hold true in California. However, in California the entire court file is a public record and is available to anyone to review. The only exception are reports regarding the children that are sealed by court order. Many couples keep the public information to a minimum and only show how the assets are being divided without any numbers attached. Also, often couples refer to their marital settlement agreement and do not put it into the public record
Healthy divorce isn’t just about the children and assets
Among the other lessons that divorcing couples might learn from the Gates divorce, there’s this one: A healthy divorce is about more than the children and the assets. It’s also about finding creative solutions. Maintaining privacy. Retaining control over your life. Refusing to let your divorce drag you into the public spotlight or down into the mud.
Everyone hopes their divorce can lead to a better future. The right custody arrangements and fair property division certainly play their part. Still, there’s a lot that can also be said for solutions that minimize private conflicts and public scrutiny.
More and more couples are choosing collaborative divorce or divorce mediation because both maintain privacy and confidentiality as well as allowing the couple to create their own individual agreements based upon their goals and objectives.