Melinda Gates started divorce talks with lawyers in 2019

The split between Bill and Melinda Gates, announced last week, has been in the works for a long time.

Gates consulted with divorce lawyers roughly two years before she filed for divorce from Gates, saying their marriage was “irretrievably broken”, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The 56-year-old philanthropist has been working with lawyers at several firms since at least 2019 to unwind the marriage of more than 25 years, according to these people and the documents.

On 3 May, the billionaire couple announced they were ending their marriage. In a joint statement posted on Twitter, they said, “we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives”.

READ ‘We no longer believe we can grow together’: Bill and Melinda Gates are divorcing

The couple hasn’t said what prompted the split. One source of concern for Gates was her husband’s dealings with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, according to the people and a former employee of their charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Her concerns about the relationship dated as far back as 2013, the former employee said.

The couple negotiated their divorce throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the documents show. They have three children who are all now 18 years or older, the divorce filing shows. The youngest is a senior in high school.

According to the documents reviewed by the Journal, Melinda Gates and her advisers held a number of calls in October 2019 when the New York Times reported that Bill Gates had met with Epstein on numerous occasions. Bill Gates once stayed late into the night at Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse, the Times reported.

Bridgitt Arnold, a spokeswoman for Bill Gates, said in 2019 that the software mogul and Epstein had met multiple times to discuss philanthropy. “Bill Gates regrets ever meeting with Epstein and recognises it was an error in judgment to do so,” Arnold said at the time. Epstein died in jail in August 2019, while awaiting trial on federal charges related to sex trafficking.

Melinda Gates, a global advocate for women and girls, had told her husband she was uncomfortable with Epstein after the couple met him in 2013, the former employee of the Gates Foundation said. Bill Gates and some employees of the Gates Foundation continued a relationship with Epstein despite her concerns, this person said.

The Daily Beast earlier reported on the 2013 meeting and Melinda Gates’s concerns with Epstein.

When asked about his relationship with Epstein in a September 2019 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates said: “I met him. I didn’t have any business relationship or friendship with him.”

A spokeswoman for Bill Gates said on 7 May that he stands by his 2019 statement to the Journal and declined to comment further.

A spokeswoman for Melinda Gates didn’t respond to questions about her reasons for seeking a divorce.

In early 2020, Bill and Melinda Gates surprised many people when they said they wouldn’t attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an annual gathering of business and world leaders that the power couple had attended for years.

A few months later, on 13 March, Bill Gates said he was resigning from the boards of Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway. The Microsoft co-founder said he planned to focus more on his philanthropic efforts.

By that time, the couple were already in discussions to divide their vast wealth, according to the people familiar with the matter and the documents. Legal teams from both sides were privately in discussions with a mediator to work out a separation, the documents show.

Melinda Gates’s legal team by then already included New York divorce lawyer Robert Stephan Cohen, the documents show. Cohen has represented Michael Bloomberg, Henry Kravis and Ivana Trump in their divorces.

Bill Gates also has some star lawyers, including Ronald Olson, a partner at the firm Munger, Tolles & Olson who has represented Mark Zuckerberg, among others. Olson is a board member at Berkshire Hathaway, where he sat alongside Bill Gates and Bill Gates’s close friend Warren Buffett.

READ Bill Gates bakes Warren Buffett a cake as ‘Oracle of Omaha’ turns 90

The May 3 divorce filing says the couple had agreed to a separation contract to divide their assets — a fortune estimated at $130bn by Forbes. Their assets include a $131m lakeside compound in Washington state called Xanadu 2.0, a rare Leonardo da Vinci notebook and investments in Microsoft and Four Seasons Hotels.

Last week, Bill Gates’s investment firm transferred nearly $2.4bn worth of public company shares to Melinda Gates, including stakes in car-dealership owner AutoNation, a Mexican broadcaster and a Canadian railroad.

The Gateses have said they would give away most of their wealth and have donated more than $36bn to the Gates Foundation over the years. The couple said they planned to remain co-chairs at the foundation and jointly lead it after their divorce. “We continue to share a belief in that mission,” they said in their Twitter statement.

Melinda Gates signed her divorce petition in Bellevue, near the family home and the foundation’s headquarters, according to the filing. Bill Gates signed the papers from Palm Desert, California.

Write to Emily Glazer at [email protected] and Khadeeja Safdar at [email protected]

This article was published by The Wall Street Journal.