Foundation intact after billionaire pair split

Billionaire benefactors Bill and Melinda Gates, cofounders of one of the world’s largest private charitable foundations, have filed for divorce after 27 years of marriage but pledged to continue their philanthropic work together.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become one of the most powerful and influential forces in global public health, spending more than US$50 billion over the past two decades to bring a business approach to combating poverty and disease.

The Gates have backed widely praised programs in malaria and polio eradication, child nutrition and vaccines. The foundation last year committed some US$1.75 billion to Covid-19 relief.

The couple asserted their legal union was “irretrievably broken,” but said they had reached agreement on how to divide their marital assets. No details of that accord were disclosed in their filing in King County Superior Court in Seattle.

Bill Gates, 65, who co-founded Microsoft Corp, and Melinda French Gates, 56, met after she joined the software giant as a product manager and they dated for a few years before marrying in January 1994 in Hawaii.

“We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in the next phase of our lives. We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life,” they said in a joint statement.

The divorce petition, which states that the couple have no minor children, comes after the youngest of their three offspring recently turned 18.

Their foundation, launched in 2000, is the largest private philanthropic foundation in the United States and one of the world’s biggest, with net assets of US$43.3 billion at the end of 2019, its website said. From 1994 through 2018, the couple gifted more than US$36 billion to the Seattle-based foundation.

Last year, investor Warren Buffett reported donating more than US$2 billion of stock from his Berkshire Hathaway to the foundation

The split comes two years after another leading Seattle-based billionaire and philanthropist, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, said that he and his then-wife, MacKenzie, were getting divorced.

In the Gateses’ divorce petition, the couple asks the court “to dissolve our marriage” and to divide their communal property, business interests and liabilities “as set forth in our separation contract,” though that accord was not made public.

Bill Gates is ranked No 4 on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest individuals, with an estimated US$124 billion fortune.

In a separate statement, the Gates foundation said the couple would remain as co-chairs and trustees of the organization.

“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,” it said.

Gates dropped out of Harvard University to start Microsoft with school chum Paul Allen in 1975. After an executive tenure in which he helped transform the company into one of the world’s leading technology firms, Gates stepped down as CEO in 2000 to focus on philanthropy. He remained chairman until 2014 and left the company’s board in March 2020.

David Callahan, founder of the Insider Philanthropy website and author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, said although the couple say they will continue to work together at their foundation, “Melinda Gates could still pursue her own philanthropic work.”

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