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The lessons we could all learn from the divorce of the world’s richest man

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Written by: Stephen Lyon
11/04/2019
MacKenzie Bezos’ recent divorce from Amazon founder Jeff has made her the third richest woman in the world, an agreement Ms Bezos tweeted she was happy with, after her settlement left her with a four per cent share in Amazon, worth around £27bn. 

Most of us would be happy with such an arrangement, but some have claimed Ms Bezos should have fought for more, as local law entitles her to a 50/50 split. After 25-years of marriage and four children, is Ms Bezos entitled to more? And how does a couple with such complex assets maintain such a seemingly amicable divorce?  

The couple met while working for D.E. Shaw, a New York-based hedge fund, before moving to Seattle and launching Amazon. Ms Bezos left her career to support Mr Bezos’ dream and help raise their children 

Many people are arguing that Princeton-educated Ms Bezos has been left short-changed, despite her financial settlement seeing her become one of the richest women on the planet. There are grounds that Ms Bezos should have secured a larger financial settlement, as Washington state law rules that assets gained during marriage should be split 50/50 upon a divorce and Ms Bezos gave up much more, including the majority of the couple’s shared Amazon stock (plus voting control), as well as two companies – Blue Origin and The Washington PostHowever, Ms Bezos insists that she is happy and that this divorce settlement provides a clean break, allowing everyone to move on with the next phase in their lives as ‘co-parents and friends’  

Of course – money isn’t everything and what’s quite remarkable about this case is that the couple have managed to separate and divide their complex assets relatively simply and cleanly. More often than not, high-net-worth couples run into problems when they divorce due to their complicated assets – they might have a global property portfolio, shares in various businesses and hold money across multiple jurisdictions.

Super-yachts

A recent high-profile divorce which puts a spotlight on some of these cross-jurisdictional problems is the Akhmedov case. Tatiana won a global freezing order in the English High Court after Farkhad Akhmedov failed to hand over her divorce settlement of £453 million. The order impounded his £350 million superyacht in Dubai. However, the Dubai courts have since overturned the English court’s decision and handed the superyacht back to the Russian oligarch. This case highlights complexities facing these mega wealthy couples, and how, if they’re not careful, a divorce battle can become a drawn-out, costly and painful process.   

While many of us will never have the sort of assets owned by Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos, there are some lessons to be learnt from their non-litigious and amicable break-up. And while we will never know the details of their divorce negotiations, the following points could help couples with complex assets who want to keep the peace with their soon-to-be ex-partner:  

  • Consider mediation or arbitration – both of these dispute resolution methods keep the divorce out of the courts and the details private. Similarly, the focus with both of these processes is settling the matter quickly and peacefully.  
  • Be honest about your assets, don’t try and hide them. Honesty and open communication at all stages of the process is not always easy but in the long-term (especially for couples with children), this creates an atmosphere which is much more conducive to fair negotiation and an outcome everyone is happy with.  
  • Consider a pre-nup/post-nup – when drafted properly, these agreements can be very helpful in ensuring the division of assets is simple – particularly when those assets are complex or inherited wealth is involved. 

With more studies revealing the long-term damage a divorce can have on your mental health, it is advisable to think about your split in the long-term and focus on non-litigious, amicable ways to resolve the break-up and, in the words of Ms Bezos, come out with a result you’re happy with.  

Stephen Lyon is a family barrister at 4PB 

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