~ May 2021 ~
- Bill and Melinda Gates’ split is the latest high-profile divorce, which are unique in some ways.
- Billionaires tend to settle out of court and their lifestyles are less affected by the results.
- People, no matter their wealth, tend to divorce for the same reasons.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce Monday, many Americans were stunned: How could the billionaire power couple call it quits after 27 years of marriage, three children, and world-dominating business and philanthropic ventures together?
“I think many people were surprised because … they acted like a team,” New York matrimonial attorney Marilyn Chinitz told Insider. “It was hard to see that this team too could be subject to a divorce, and that they weren’t immune to it.”
Indeed, extreme wealth doesn’t shield people from relationship breakdowns, but it can make how the divorce goes down and how each party is affected different.
Chinitz and fellow New York matrimonial attorney Vicky Poumpouridis talked to Insider about what makes the wealthiest divorces unique — and what makes all breakups more or less the same.
Are rich people protected from marriage woes?
There is some data to suggest that wealth can help protect against divorce. Making just $50,000 a year can decrease the risk of a split by 30% compared to people with an annual income less than $25,000, according to research compiled by the law firm Wilkinson and Finkbeiner.
Couples who have at least $10,000 in assets are also less likely to divorce over a three year period than those with none. But statistics don’t paint the full picture, and divorce for the 1-percenters can be a different story altogether.
The pandemic may have benefited some rich folks’ relationships, experts told Insider, as they weren’t necessarily subject to the cramped-living-space issue that drove some COVID-era breakups. On the other hand, without as much glamour and travel, their marriages have crumbled too.
High-profile divorces tend to involve a lot more players
Working out how to share a house or children can be complicated when divorcing.
“There are a lot of layers and layers and layers in terms how the wealth is built,” Poumpouridis, of the firm Kasowitz Benson Torres, said.
That means working with a big team of divorce professionals like tax attorneys, trust and estate attorneys, matrimonial attorneys, corporate attorneys, and more, said Chinitz, a partner in Blank Rome LLP who’s represented Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, and other high-profile clients during their divorces.
There can also be more disagreements around succession of wealth, or who gets what money when, and fears about tax avoidance among especially affluent couples, Chinitz said.
The super wealthy usually settle out of court
The Gateses’ decision to stay out of the public eye while working out a separation agreement is typical of high-profile couples the lawyers said. For one, they want to avoid fueling the press.
The Gateses’, for example, have “already hashed out the details of the divorce and how they’re going to divide their assets” through their separation agreement, Poumpouridis said. In high-net-worth cases like theirs, “people just want to get divorced quietly and out of the public eye as much as possible.”
Judges also aren’t so sympathetic to pairs for whom there’s more than enough dough to go around, Chinitz said. They “kind of resent wealthy people taking up space in their court,” she said.
Rich people may be more likely than the rest of us to file for divorce in financially tough times
Splitting property can financially devastate the newly divorced, which is in part why “when economic times are bad, most people want to stay together to make sure the assets increase in value,” Chinitz said.
That’s not necessarily true for the rich and famous.
“For who have money and know that their businesses are going to come back, they’ll take advantage of a bad economic downturn and start the divorce action because the value of the assets are going to be significantly lower,” she said.
Rather than upending each former partner’s lifestyle, the breakup doesn’t necessarily change much, relatively, in their daily lives.
“We’ve seen a lot of cases over the past several years involving super wealthy individuals getting divorced,” Chinitz said, like Jeff Bezos and Stephen Ross.
“What these cases have in common is unfathomable wealth, and that will allow both parties and their respective families to move on and continue living a lifestyle no different than what they enjoyed during the marriage,” she said. “So it may not have a big impact on them — certainly not financially.”
The rich aren’t immune from human conflicts
Ultimately, relationships end for all sorts of reasons that have more to do with our humanity than our wallets.
“Rich or richer or not rich at all, at the end of the day, people are people and they get divorced, honestly, for the same reasons,” Poumpouridis said.
Maybe they fight about money (a — if not the — top cause for divorce), whether it’s how to spend or how to save. Often their child-rearing philosophies clash. Maybe someone cheated. There could be substance, emotional, or physical abuse. Someone feels lonely, someone feels misunderstood, someone feels undesired.
Or, they simply grow apart.
“All of a sudden, you wake up and you’re in your sixties and you’re an empty nester and you’re looking at each other and you realize you don’t have that much in common anymore, or you’re not fulfilling each other’s lives like you once did, or you were totally distracted for all the years and now you see what you want,” Chinitz said.