Earlier this month, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife Mackenzie announced their plans to divorce, setting off speculation as to what would occur with their estimated $138 billion in net worth.
From a first glance, you may assume that the Bezos divorce would be much more acrimonious and hard fought than a case involving the typical John and Jane Doe case as the thought may be that there is more to fight for financially.
However, wealth in these incredibly high net worth cases actually removes many of the most challenging issues in divorce like payment of legal and expert fees or trying to continue the lifestyle for both parties with insufficient income from both parties to same to occur. The world’s richest couple will not have these challenges.
Instead, high net worth divorces have a whole different set of challenges that middle-class families typically do not need to consider.
First, the logical step-wise process in any division of assets and debts in a divorce is to ascertain, account for and value all of the assets and debts owned by either or both parties. For the Bezoses and other high net worth divorcees, this will likely be a complex, incredibly time-consuming process.
Beyond typical assets like cash, brokerage accounts, and retirement assets, parties like the Bezoses likely have ownership interests in many separate enterprises, corporations, partnerships, subsidiaries, investment trusts, along with extensive real estate, private equity holdings, and even art and jewelry collections all of which need to be accounted for and valued. Trusts and incredibly complex ownership structures will need to be investigated, digested and analyzed.
The Bezoses are going to need all sorts of professionals supervising and drafting documents to make sure that any kind of asset transfer will be well drafted and will protect both parties. If we do find any details about the Bezoses settlement (which I expect to remain private, as further outlined below), it will not likely be completed for years to come.
The most expensive part of the divorce process is not likely to be legal fees, but rather fees and costs for experts and appraisers who must figure out how to divide up the largest tranche of personal assets in the world.
Privacy is paramount in cases dealing with prominent figures and celebrities such as the Bezoses. Millions are chomping at the bit to hear about what they have, how it will be divided, and whether the fight will get ugly. In fact, this blog relies on the assumption that those of you reading this have at least some interest as to their personal lives and the theater of their divorce.
For this reason, it is very unlikely that the Bezos divorce ever sees a courtroom. It’s all but guaranteed that the divorce will be resolved through a private negotiated settlement, mediation or a private arbitration, or some combination all held behind closed doors with gag orders and strict confidentiality.
Lastly for this article, Jeff Bezos’ majority stakeholder status at Amazon brings about its own challenges, as would any high net worth divorcee with controlling interest in a business enterprise. Since the vast majority of Bezos’ wealth is tied up in his ownership stake in Amazon, which he started after marrying his wife, providing for equitable distribution may need to become creative.
Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos are based in the state of Washington, which is a community property state. This means that each spouse equally owns all of the assets either party has acquired over the course of their marriage, including their corporate shares. This differs from equitable distribution states like New Jersey, where division of the assets and debts of spouses are determined by a host of statutory factors meant for a fair allocation, which may not be an equal allocation.
Jeff Bezos, according to Forbes, owns 16% of Amazon, by far the largest shareholder. With major stockholders in a divorce, you want to be sure to effectuate division of the assets in such a way that does not divest control from that shareholder. For example, in the Bezos case, Mackenzie may be entitled to 50% of the total shares (remember, they live in a community property state where 50/50 splits are the presumption).
However, if 50% of Jeff Bezos’ shares are conveyed to Mackenzie and she liquidates a portion, shareholder control of Amazon could be significantly affected and the Bezos may lose their controlling stake. This could stagnate the family fortune which would benefit the Bezos’ children and legacy, which is unlikely to be MacKenzie’s goal or desire.
Instead, what is more likely is that Mackenzie will get “constructive ownership” of 50% of the shares, with Jeff retaining control of the business enterprise. Mackenzie will get the dividends from her portion of the shares and if there is a liquidity event, she might get bought out, but there would not likely be an actual transfer that would divest the family of control of Amazon.
There also may be a division based on exchanging values, meaning that perhaps an agreement is made wherein Mackenzie receives a much larger share or the entirety of other assets that would equal the value of her potential portion of her 50% right to the Amazon shares. However, this option appears to be less likely given that the majority of the Bezos net worth is tied to their Amazon holdings. Depending on how diversified they are, perhaps Jeff can convey more of some other assets and less of Amazon.
Time will tell whether we will ever know the result of the Bezos divorce, but we can be assured that the world will be watching to see what we can in regard to the world’s highest net worth divorce on record.