Here's How Bill and Melinda Gates May Split Assets Under Washington State Law After Divorce Filing

After 27 years, philanthropist couple Bill and Melinda Gates have decided to end their marriage.

In a joint statement shared on Twitter, the couple said, "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 they will continue to work together at the foundation they co-founded and co-chair, but "no longer believe [they] can grow together as a couple in this next phase of [their] lives."

— Bill Gates (@BillGates) May 3, 2021

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has more than $51 billion in assets, according to CNBC and Bill, the co-founder of Microsoft, is worth about $130 billion, according to Forbes.

According to documents first obtained by TMZ, Melinda Gates filed the petition for divorce, citing that their marriage is "irretrievably broken." She is not requesting spousal or child support. The document also states that while the couple does not have a prenuptial agreement, they do have a separation agreement.

A separation agreement is a document written between spouses that outlines how to divide their assets and responsibilities when preparing for separation or divorce, according to the McKinley Irvin Family Law firm. It is unclear at this time how all of the couple's assets will be split.

"It's like breaking up a huge conglomerate," said Janet George, a divorce attorney with McKinley Irvin.

After reading the petition for divorce and considering all the assets the couple owns, including cars, homes, land and business holdings, George believes the Gateses have been working on this agreement for a while.

According to George, the Gateses could have this agreement completed or almost completed and just need a judge to affirm it. If they have everything resolved already, they can get divorced on the 91st day from filing for divorce. However, if the agreement is only partially completed, they can take a few months to resolve any lingering issues, like getting assets appraised and valued.

The couple's respective lawyers will affirm that they have taken into account everything they owe so every issue is resolved and the judge will just have to sign a simple document that officially makes them divorced.

"All of what they're doing is very simple and straightforward because they're not putting any of it in the open court or in the file," George said. "I would expect them to do it that way and if they did have a challenge or a conflict, I would expect them not to do it in court, but to do it in a private mediation."

If the couple cannot agree on how to divide all their assets on their own or through arbitration, then they would have to go before a judge to present both sides and the judge would decide how to split everything up.

Washington is a community property state. That means that all property and all debt accumulated during the course of marriage, including income of both spouses is presumed "community property" belonging to both spouses, according to the McKinley Irvin website. However, property acquired prior to the marriage beginning, property that shown to be acquired by gift or device, and some personal injury settlements are considered the separate property of the spouse who acquired it.

There are usually three steps in deciding how to divide assets. First, each asset and debt is categorized as community or separate property. Second, each asset is valued. This can be done with an expert appraisal or by the couple agreeing on the value between themselves. Third, the assets and debts are divided between the parties. Washington law requires that the court's division of the property is "just and equitable."

George said that many times parties may agree to just divide certain assets in half.

For example, the couple could split their shared stock shares in half. Then it doesn't matter how much each is worth because they've gotten equal shares.

"There are lots of times when you don't have to value assets or the parties can agree to the value rather than having it appraised," George said. "For example, if the couple has a boat and the parties said they're going to use it half time, it doesn't need to be valued yet and there is a contract for how they would use it."

If the couple disagrees about how to divide something, or one person wants it for him or herself, they would need to know the official value.

While George said it could "be fun to speculate" what will happen in the proceedings, "if they have a separation agreement, it doesn't really matter because they've already worked it out."

Bill Melinda Gates
In this screengrab, Melinda Gates and Bill Gates speak during "One World: Together At Home" presented by Global Citizen on April, 18, 2020. The couple recently announced they are getting divorced after 27 years of marriage. Getty Images/Getty Images for Global Citizen )