It’s not every day the world’s richest man gets divorced. But Wednesday's announcement that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are splitting has a lot of people wondering what will happen to the couple’s fortune. As the founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos is estimated to be worth $137 billion. Most of that is tied up in Amazon stock. He owns about 16 percent of the company.
So how does a divorce work for the super rich? KING 5's Mark Wright talked to well-known Seattle family law attorney Jennifer Payseno, a McKinley Irvin partner and First Vice President of the King County Bar Association.
Q: What happens first?
A: A petition is what is filed to start a divorce. If the parties are not able to agree on the terms of the divorce, then a court decides. Many couples also draft a separate agreement spelling out how their property will be divided. That agreement is not filed with the court.
The attorney I talked with thinks Jeff and MacKenzie probably have already agreed on how to divide their assets. The last thing the CEO of the world’s biggest company wants is an ugly, public fight over who gets what.
What’s important to know is the divorce decree is a public document, but the property division agreement is not. That means we’ll probably never know how much money MacKenzie will get in the settlement.
Q: What does the law say about assets when rich couples divorce?
A: Rich or poor, the law in Washington is applied the same. We live in what’s known as a “community property” state — one of 9 in the U.S. A lot of people mistakenly think that means any assets accumulated after you get married are split 50/50. That’s not necessarily true. The law in Washington only says the assets shall be divided in a fair and equitable way. It is possible that one spouse could get more than another, depending on the circumstances.
Here’s another important point: an asset that belongs to one spouse before marriage could be given to the other spouse in a divorce settlement. Again, it goes back to if the division of assets is fair and equitable.
Q: Does how long you’re married make a difference in how assets are divided?
A: The short answer is yes, according to the attorney I spoke with. Length of marriage is an important factor to consider in Washington. In a longer-term marriage, the court is going to be more concerned with equalizing the parties resources. Jeff and MacKenzie were married for 25 years.
Q. Is MacKenzie entitled to half of the value of Amazon?
A: The couple married in New York when they both worked for a hedge fund. They moved to Seattle where Jeff Bezos started Amazon. That’s a key factor. They started the company after they were married. The attorney I spoke with said MacKenzie may certainly be entitled to one half of the estate, which would include the value of the Amazon stock.
Q: Did they have a prenuptial agreement?
A: We don’t know. Washington does allow both pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements. The attorney I spoke with says marital agreements are favored in Washington provided that the agreement appears fair, there has been full disclosure of all of the assets and there was full opportunity to have independent legal advice to understand the nature and terms of the agreement.