The announcement that Bill and Melinda Gates were to divorce was amicable enough, suggesting a smooth split between the famous couple who turned a billion-dollar software fortune into a driving force for global philanthropy.
“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates tweeted on 3 May. “We continue to share a belief in that mission and will continue our work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”
While French Gates’ divorce petition, filed in King county, Washington superior court, said “this marriage is irretrievably broken” , it also indicated that potential points of contention had already been worked out. The document revealed they had inked a “separation contract”. French Gates asked the court to divide their assets according to this agreement and said that “spousal support is not needed”. French Gates did not request a name change.
But the couple were not able to avoid the fate of many of the mega-rich who divorce and their marriage became the subject of feverish press scrutiny. Within a few days rival news publications swapped scoops about Gates’s allegedly boorish behavior, including stories on his purported ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
The Wall Street Journal reported Microsoft executives determined that Gates “needed to step down from its board in 2020” while they conducted an investigation into an affair that he had with a female employee. This romantic relationship was “deemed inappropriate”. Gates stepped down from his position as a director on the board before its investigation concluded – and before other members could issue a formal decision on this relationship, reported the newspaper.
“There was an affair almost 20 years ago which ended amicably,” a spokesperson for Gates commented, saying his “decision to transition off the board was in no way related to this matter.”
There were at least several occasions when Gates “pursued women who worked for him at Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” the New York Times claimed, citing people with “direct knowledge of his overtures”. French Gates had also voiced discomfort that Gates was spending time with Epstein – whom he reportedly met in early 2011, three years after Epstein pleaded guilty to soliciting a minor, reports claimed.
A month after Epstein killed himself in jail in August 2019, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Gates where he said: “I didn’t have any business relationship or friendship with him.” But the Times reported in October 2019 that Gates met with Epstein “on numerous occasions”.
“His lifestyle is very different and kind of intriguing, although it would not work for me,” Gates allegedly said in an email to colleagues after he first met Epstein. French Gates was “unhappy” when Gates and Epstein’s relationship hit the news cycle, the newspaper said. The Journal reported that French Gates “held a number of calls” when the Times article ran. The Times explained that French Gates began consulting with matrimonial attorneys and advisers who would aid the couple in splitting their assets.
The Daily Beast reported on 16 May that Epstein provided Gates advice on ending his marriage after the tech titan complained about Melinda “during a series of meetings.” Gates allegedly said that his marriage was “toxic” in conversation with Epstein, “a topic both men found humorous”, per the Daily Beast report.
Less sensational details on the couple’s travails also emerged. The New York Post, quoting a source, reported “Bill did talk to his close friends on the golf course. He told them a while back that the marriage was loveless, that it had been over for some time and they were living separate lives.” A source told the New York Times that anyone observing French Gates’ body language at some public events, such as philanthropic functions, could tell that she was unhappy.
A media representative for Gates said in an email: “Claims that Gates had any personal conversations with Epstein in these meetings, which were about philanthropy, is simply not true.”
“It is false to say Gates sought or received marital advice – or advice of any kind – from Epstein,” the email stated. “It is false to say he complained about his marriage or Melinda to Epstein, let alone to anyone else.” They also said, “It is false to say that going to Epstein’s was a ‘respite from his marriage.’”
They said that it’s “false to say there was ever any discussion of Epstein getting involved with the Gates Foundation.” A foundation spokesperson commented “the foundation never had any financial dealings with Jeffrey Epstein”.
Neither French Gates’ attorneys, nor the press contact provided for her, responded to requests for comment.
Although sensational claims have emerged, observers shouldn’t assume that this will impact their separation contract for their split, divorce experts say.
“No matter what the drama is that’s now evolving or erupting in the media or anywhere else, and even by rumor mill, the agreement is basically going to be the agreement,” said Bonnie Rabin, a veteran divorce attorney in New York City.
“They did what most uber-wealthy people do. They’ve been dealing with this for a number of months, they’ve made their agreement, they’ve submitted it to the court. It’s basically a done deal.”
Nancy Chemtob, a longtime matrimonial attorney in New York City, said that given the amount of money involved and the length of their marriage, it stands to reason that it’s likely a “50-50 case” in terms of splitting up assets.
But it’s unclear how, exactly, the divorce will affect their foundation. Nor is that a small issue. The Gates Foundation has become a global force in philanthropy, especially in the areas of fighting disease. But it also tackles poverty and inequality with many projects all around the globe. The foundation has provided financial support for some of the Guardian’s global development coverage.
A media representative said in an email that the pair will remain co-chairs and trustees at the foundation. “No changes to their roles or the organization are planned,” the statement said. “They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues, and set the organization’s overall direction.”
“Fundamentally, it’s a separate entity from their personal money or their wealth, so it’s not as if the foundation is going to be divided up in the divorce,” said Thad Calabrese, an associate professor of financial management at NYU Wagner.
The entity of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation will continue to exist – the money that’s there is there, and they can’t remove it. However, it is possible that the divorce might affect their future contributions to the foundation, or start to focus on different areas of interest, Calabrese said.
Even though Gates has not been accused of wrongdoing with Epstein, it’s always possible that reports of alleged ties could impact the foundation.
“There’s always a concern, and not just for foundations but in the larger non-profit sector, that the appearance of impropriety can sometimes be just as bad as actual impropriety itself,” Calabrese said. “So the concern that this could scare away future donors from the foundation, or the foundation having a diminished role because of that, is a real possibility.”