High Net Worth Divorce - What Happens When The Wealthy Split Up?

There have been a number of high profile divorces that have been publicised recently. Back in May 2021, Bill and Melinda Gates announced their separation to the world after 27 years of marriage. With an estimated $124bn fortune to account for, the divorce of the former richest man in the world is a great example of how complex high net worth cases can become.

Bill, the co-founder of Microsoft, built up his estate after launching the software company in 1974. When he met and married his wife Melinda in 1994 he was already a multi-millionaire and Melinda is now estimated to be worth more than $70m in her own right. All of these are bound to complicate proceedings, not to mention the co-running of the hugely influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

These financial elements, along with the fact that they have three children together, means this high net worth divorce is set to be one of the most publicised cases since the Bezos’ 2019 separation.

High net worth individuals face a uniquely difficult set of challenges, particularly when it comes to financial settlements and arrangements. The structure of assets is often intricate and difficult to break down, meaning that when divorce proceedings begin, it can be unclear who is entitled to what. 

This situation is made even more difficult if the couple has children and have been married for a long time – both of which apply to the Gates case.

The Importance of a Prenuptial Agreement (Prenup)

Although not legally binding in England and Wales, prenups are a way for couples to demonstrate their intentions to the court. They allow parties to clearly outline their financial plans before marriage certificates are signed and they are viewed as spouses in the eyes of the law.

It’s been reported in the press that Bill and Melinda did not sign one of these agreements or anything similar prior to their marriage. This could have been a conscious decision or perhaps because prenups were not as popular in the 90s as they are today – the rate of couples choosing to use one has soared in the years since.  

One thing that all couples thinking about getting a prenup, high net worth or not, must take into account is that they have to be considered fair to hold any weight in court. Several terms must be met for them to do so:

  • Both parties entering into the prenup must have received independent legal advice prior to signing 
  • Total financial disclosure took place, covering assets of both parties 
  • No significant changes have happened within the relationship (having children, for example)
  • Neither individual was placed under pressure to sign 
  • The terms of the prenup are deemed fair and reasonable (unequal division of assets may be deemed unfair)
  • Solid prenups will be reviewed and updated throughout the marriage period – particularly when major changes occur

Adhering to these terms gives more weight to a prenup, in turn making divorce proceedings clearer when it comes to asset division. However, it is important to bear in mind that in England and Wales prenups are not legally binding.

Defining Marital and Non-Marital Assets 

One of the most common divorce issues becomes even more important when dealing with high net worth individuals. The definition of what constitutes marital and non-marital assets must be cleared up early in proceedings to allow for the proper division of marital assets.

Matrimonial assets are assets that either party has acquired during the marriage period. Non-marital assets, on the other hand, are those acquired either before marriage or after a divorce has been finalised.

Typically, marital assets include things such as property, savings and pensions. It is irrelevant who put the money into said assets as they are considered joint. This becomes more complicated with high net worth cases as the number of assets and their value increases.

In the Gates case, a large portion of Bill’s fortune was acquired before their marriage. This means that this wealth could potentially be ring-fenced and taken off the table when agreeing a settlement. 

Hidden Assets

When dealing with high net worth cases, it is not uncommon for assets to be hidden or concealed. If this occurs, then an independent forensic accountant is often the first port of call. 

This ensures transparency and fairness throughout the process. If you believe your ex-partner is hiding assets, withholding information or stalling on any other details, then uncovering them is a must to ensure a fair settlement.

Business Valuations  

Often, the most significant assets in high net worth cases are established private businesses. Getting an exact valuation for these companies can be a complex process. If, for example, the business is active and has assets around the world with both on and off-shore structures then an expert eye is required.

Hiding assets within businesses is commonplace within high net worth divorces. With years of experience and intimate knowledge of every trick in the book, Benussi & Co are here to help unravel any financial systems that could be used to hide assets.

When it comes to putting a figure on the value of a private company, many factors must be accounted for. For example, selling off shares could be impossible or highly impractical. In this case, the spouse holding shares may be forced to offset this by relinquishing other assets or liquid capital in the settlement. 

A recent example of this is Jeff Bezos’ divorce settlement in 2019 when it became the most expensive break-up in history. This was in part due to the offset of Amazon’s value against his assets, meaning he paid a larger settlement figure but retained control of company stock.  

High Net Worth Divorces With Benussi & Co

Benussi & Co are here to provide expert legal advice and representation to any individual who may be looking to start divorce or dissolution proceedings. Our years of experience make us uniquely able to advise on high net worth divorce cases with the ultimate goal of achieving the best settlement possible.

We’re committed to helping our clients succeed. Get in touch with our solicitors today. 

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