As Bill-Melinda settle divorce, future of Gates Foundation remains uncertain

The wealthy couple, married for 27 years, would eventually divide their assets and profits amicably, but what is interesting to see is how this split affects their billion-dollar philanthropic causes

Bill and Melinda
While the couple’s net wealth finds its origin in Bill Gates’ stake in Microsoft Corp, the company’s shares now constitute just about 20% of their assets. Much of their wealth has now been moved to the Gates Foundation.

The divorce announcement by Bill and Melinda Gates a few days back, though shocking for the world, seemed to have been worked out well in advance by the billionaire couple, suggest financial details of the split that have emerged.

Another billionaire couple, Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott, had separated in 2019, which had led to a 75-25 split of their stake in Amazon.com Inc for Bezos and Scott, respectively. However, the fortunes of the Gates, pegged at $145 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, are a bit scattered compared to Bezos’ assets, which were largely limited to Amazon stocks.

How will the Gates’ wealth be divided?

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As a first sign of settlement, Cascade Investment, a Bill Gates holding company made with Microsoft Corp. profits, transferred securities worth more than $1.8 billion to Melinda Gates, shows U.S. regulatory records dated May 3.

Also read: Bill Gates on Bitcoin: ‘Watch out if you have less money than Elon’

While the couple’s net wealth finds its origin in Bill Gates’ stake in Microsoft Corp, the company’s shares now constitute just about 20% of their assets. Much of their wealth has now been moved to the Gates Foundation. Their biggest asset is Cascade Investment, which puts their money in realty, energy sector and other public companies. Bloomberg reported that Cascade transferred 14.1 million shares to Melinda with 87.3 million shares still with Bill, which indicates the split may not be equal. “It is not a mandatory 50-50,” said Janet George, a family lawyer in Washington with the firm McKinley Irvin. “The courts can award more or less, depending on what is just and equitable.”

Of the many properties, the billionaire couple owns a mansion in Washington State, spread over 66,000 sq ft. Since Washington is a community property state, anything acquired during a marriage is considered to be equally owned by both partners.

Future of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

While the wealthy couple, married for 27 years, would eventually divide their assets and profits amicably, what is interesting to note is how this split affects their billion-dollar philanthropic causes the world over.

Notably, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed to donate a majority of the couple’s earnings to causes close to their hearts, which include climate change, global health and social issues.

It is relieving to know that the two have said that they will remain together in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Bill and Melinda will remain co-chairs and trustees of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” a spokesperson for the foundation wrote in an emailed statement.

But the future of the $50 billion fund, which only gets bigger every year, will largely depend on how the two divorcees cooperate.

“As uncomfortable as it is, their personal relationship is going to have huge consequences for where the money goes,” Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, told Bloomberg. “The Gates Foundation is the most influential and important philanthropic organization in the world. Bill and Melinda themselves have each become incredibly influential public figures in their own rights.”

Also read: Next 4-6 months could be worst of COVID-19 pandemic: Bill Gates

Melinda is in-charge of strategy at the Foundation, with more interest in gender equity. On the other hand, Bill Gates stays focused on science and global health issues.

Soskis said that Bill and Melinda Gates “were not just behind the scenes players. They were decision makers.”

Mela Garber, a tax principal in New York, who specializes in matrimonial matters, said the divorce may be amicable, but the couple “might not want to be together at certain meetings and fundraising, and have the same level of involvement with people around.” This might have a bearing on the future operations of the Foundation. Garber suggested: “Creating two new foundations eliminates a huge area of tension.”

Warren Buffett, the buffer between the two

The Gates Foundation board has only three members: Bill, Melinda, and Warren Buffett. It means the conflicts between the two, if any, in future will have to be resolved by the 90-year-old investment guru.

“To the extent to which they have huge divergent interests that would arise, Buffett would play an important role,” Ohio State University’s Mittendorf told Bloomberg.

COVID vaccine, patents and the Gates Foundation

While the Foundation is already known for its philanthropic work all over the world, Bill Gates, with his special interest in human health related issues, has earned the reputation of a go-to expert on the COVID pandemic, especially when the world lacked guidance on mitigating the effects of the once-in-a-lifetime global crisis. However, conspiracy theories against Bill over patents and the way forward to providing global access to the vaccines, has raised questions on the Foundation’s credibility to some extent.

On her part, Melinda Gates has continued her work in the area of gender equality. Her recent book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” which came out in 2019, clearly spell out how she looks at philanthropy.

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