Last week, news broke that Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos and his wife, award-winning novelist, MacKenzie Bezos, would be divorcing after 25 years of marriage.
Bezos is currently the world’s richest person with an estimated net worth of $137 billion. There was an outpouring of comments on social media about MacKenzie being a “gold digger” and saying it was “disgusting” that she might get half of the Amazon fortune as a part of the divorce settlement.
The anger and indignation seemed to be coming from the perspective that MacKenzie did not “do anything” so why should she get such a large portion of “his” fortune in the divorce settlement?
Divorce and finance laws vary in the US by state. The Bezoses call Washington home and as they do not have a pre-nuptial agreement, the starting point is likely to be that the property acquired during their marriage will be equally divided between them.
Bezos and his wife have been married for 25 years. Amazon has been in existence for 24. MacKenzie Bezos has by all accounts, been a committed wife, supporting her husband and playing a major role in raising their four children.
MacKenzie was apparently a critical part of Amazon’s early days in a converted Seattle garage, negotiating freight contracts and assisting with the business in general. Although Bezos has sometimes been portrayed as a “lone genius”, MacKenzie was there every step of the way.
A marriage is considered to be a partnership, benefiting both parties albeit in different ways. The key question here is – would Bezos have reached the level of success he did without the assistance and support of his wife?
Here in the UK, the division of assets depends on a number of factors and the courts have a very wide discretion on how to split up family finances. Contributions made by the parties, whether financial or in terms of raising the children, are considered to be equally important. The court will look at the length of the marriage, both parties’ ages, personal income, assets, earning capacity and the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage. The needs of the parties’ children and any family health issues will also be considered by the court (and is usually the dominant factor – but here their wealth far exceeds “needs”, of course).
This does not mean that marrying someone automatically entitles you to half of everything that your spouse has earned. Under UK law, in cases where one party has made a “special contribution” to the marriage that is so exceptional that it would be inequitable to disregard it, this will not be overlooked. Pre-marital wealth is also an important consideration.
We can contrast the impending divorce of Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos to the divorce of Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills in 2008 following their separation in 2006.
In that case, Sir McCartney’s heyday with the Beatles spanned from 1960 to 1970, although this of course continues to the present day by way of royalty payments, concerts and even some new material. The iconic songs that he and his fellow Beatles dreamt up were therefore penned long before he married Mills in 2002.
Mills sought £125 million, but was awarded only £16.5 million together with assets of £7.8 million, plus payments for their child’s nanny and school costs. Due to wealth being pre-marital, McCartney retained around £400 million. Contrast the Bezos’s case, in which it cannot be said that his wealth was built up prior to the relationship even starting. Indeed, she was Amazon’s accountant in its early years, after it was established in 1994.
Although it can be easy to dismiss the contributions of the lower-earning partner in a relationship, if the shoe was on the other foot you would hope that the efforts you had put into sustaining a marriage and a building a family would be taken into account. You would not want to forfeit the lifestyle you had worked hard for, simply because your relationship came to an end.
And re-read those claims on Twitter implying that unfairness hinges upon MacKenzie becoming the richest woman on earth because of her divorce – technically, she surely already was, being one half of the wealthiest couple on earth.
One great lesson to learn from the case is the dignity and integrity with which it appears the Bezoses will be dealing with their split, as set out in the statement Jeff Bezos issued on Twitter – all being well.