The Perfect Divorce: Lessons Learned From Bill and Melinda Gates

The announcement by Bill and Melinda Gates that they were ending their 27 year marriage shocked many. However, what was even more shocking was how amicable it appeared.   We hear horror stories about how contentious, emotional, and difficult divorces can be. In some cases, the mere thought of engaging in any financial and emotional warfare that may result is incentive enough to keep spouses together.

While there is never a perfect way to end a long-term marriage, there are some lessons to be learned from the way the Gates approached the filing of divorce that can help to make the process easier. Here are four tips for a successful, and less stressful, divorce.

  1. Planning in advance. While Melinda filed the divorce petition just this month, the planning started two years earlier.   Melinda reportedly started speaking to lawyers back in 2019. The information a lawyer can provide you about the process, financial division, support, and the steps you may need to take to protect yourself financially prior to the filing of the divorce is invaluable.  Talking to a lawyer early allows you to plan and make informed decisions before you are at a point where you feel the need to rush through the divorce process.
  2. Waiting for the children to graduate high school. While it is not possible and feasible to wait if your children are very young if, as in this case, waiting a couple of years means the youngest child will have all graduated from high school, the issues will be much more streamlined.  In most states, once children are 18 and graduated from high school, there are no longer issues of child support and custody to discuss.  The custody and financial support of the children is often bitterly contested in divorce. By waiting until their youngest child graduated from high school, the Gates were able to avoid issues involving the children.  They also had children old enough to discuss with them in advance the fact the parties were separating, allowing the adult children to process the information before it became public.
  3. Preparing the separation agreement in advance. When a divorce is inevitable, resolving the division of assets and financial issues in advance can save time and money later.  If the parties do not have a premarital agreement (the Gates did not), the parties may wish to consider a postnuptial agreement.  A postnuptial agreement divides the assets and liabilities while married, and can then be used as the separation agreement at the time of divorce.  Alternatively, the parties may begin negotiations of the separation agreement in advance of filing for divorce, with the final agreement incorporated into the final decree. The separation agreement should contain provisions for disposition of martial property, confirmation of separate property to each spouse, maintenance and support, as well as custody and parenting time for any minor children. Resolving differences in advance will avoid the need to proceed to trial later.
  4. Speaking kindly about each other. Part of what was so surprising for people about the announcement of the divorce by the Gates, is that no one had heard them speak negatively about each other. In fact, in the first episode of the Netflix documentary “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bills Gates” (produced in 2019) one of Bill’s friends remarks (now quite ironically) about how Bill is the only married man he has never heard say anything negative about his wife. The fact is that the best divorce, especially when the parties have children, is when the two parties can still appreciate the life they once shared together and can move forward, while perhaps not with the same admiration and respect they once had for each other, without hating each other.

Is the perfect divorce much easier if you are the Gates or Bezos of the world and dividing up billions of assets versus allocating substantial debt?  Definitely.  But it is also possible to take some of those lessons learned and make any divorce as equitable, amicable, and respectful as possible.

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About the Author:

Marlene Pontrelli is a Member in our Phoenix office and co-chair of the firm’s Family Law Practice. Marlene is a certified specialist in family law. Her practice focuses on all aspects of family law including dissolution, post-dissolution, paternity, child custody and child support matters. She is admitted to practice in California and Arizona. She is a judge pro tem for the Superior Court of Maricopa County in family law. She has extensive trial and appellate experience including appearing before the Arizona Court of Appeals, Arizona Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ms. Pontrelli has written several books, including as a co-author of the Divorce in Arizona book. She is a frequent lecturer in the area of family law and has conducted workshops throughout the country. Ms. Pontrelli is also an adjunct professor at The Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University, where she teaches the family law class. Marlene may be reached in our Phoenix office at 602-285-5081.