A Look at the Surprising Aftermath of Bill Gates and Melinda Gates' Divorce

When billionaire couple Bill and Melinda Gates announced in 2021 that they were divorcing after 27 years, it turned out money matters would be the least of the eye-opening revelations.

By Natalie Finn Oct 28, 2023 2:00 PMTags
Watch: Melinda Gates on "Unbelievably Painful" Split From Bill Gates

There's no such thing as a billion-dollar divorce that slips under the radar—let alone a $124 billion divorce.

And the May 3, 2021, announcement that Bill Gates and Melinda Gates were ending their marriage after 27 years came as a shock regardless, the Microsoft cofounder and his partner in global philanthropy innocuously chugging along all that time, their Seattle-area home base a 66,000-square-foot mega-mansion with its own beach on the shore of Lake Washington.

Though there's no such thing as too much space at times. ("Working from home—that was a piece that I think we hadn't really individually prepared for quite as much," Melinda told The New York Times in October 2020, the comment made mid-pandemic now dripping with hindsight.)

"The odd thing about COVID is that it gave me the privacy to do what I needed to do," Melinda reflected to Fortune in the fall of 2022. "It's unbelievably painful, in innumerable ways, but I had the privacy to get through it."

Among the immediate questions in the wake of the split news: What was to become of their eponymous foundation, which since 2000 had dispersed $53.8 billion to public health and development initiatives, including $20 billion of the couple's own Microsoft stock? And what about all their money in general, since one of the first behind-the-scenes details to come out about the parents of three was that they had no prenuptial agreement?

Then, of course, there were the personal questions: What led them to the belief, as they said in their official statement, that they could no longer "grow together as a couple in the next phase of our lives"? What led to their marriage becoming, as Melinda's divorce petition stated, "irretrievably broken"?

2023 Celebrity Breakups

Well, as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos—who these days trades richest-person-in-the-world status, a title Bill first assumed in 1995 at the age of 39, back and forth with thrice-divorced Elon Musk—proved when he and wife McKenzie Scott filed for divorce in 2019... 

It's usually something.

Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock

Bill Gates—who started Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975, when the idea of personal computers in every home was still science fiction—met Melinda French on the job in 1987, about four months after she joined Microsoft, the only woman in the company's 10-person MBA recruitment class that year.

The high school valedictorian and Duke University grad, whose father brought home an Apple II when she was 14, sparking her interest in programming, sat in one of only two open seats at a trade fair dinner in New York and Bill arrived and took the other chair. Melinda later said of the CEO that he "was funnier than I expected him to be."

Some months went by before Bill first asked her out, taking the opportunity when they bumped into each other (not literally) in the parking lot on a Saturday. "Everybody seemed to work on a Saturday at Microsoft," Melinda explained on the Jan. 20, 2021, episode of the What's Her Story With Sam & Amy podcast. But he suggested two weeks from Friday, and she informed him that wasn't spontaneous enough for her, that she had no idea what she'd be up to that far ahead.

He got her number (and the message) and called to see if she was available for a drink that night, after the various meetings on his schedule.

Most Expensive Celeb Divorces

They bonded over brainteasers and puzzles, board games and music. His favorite book was The Great Gatsby—and she'd read it twice.

"How does Melinda make you feel?" she recalled someone asking Bill in her 2019 book The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World. His reply: "Amazingly, she makes me feel like getting married."

George Frey/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Melinda didn't share the identity of that particular confidante, but in 1997 Bill told TIME that he consulted his ex-girlfriend and fellow tech wiz Ann Winblad before popping the question.

"When I was off on my own thinking about marrying Melinda, I called Ann and asked for her approval," he shared. Ann told the magazine, "I said she'd be a good match for him because she had intellectual stamina."

Bill and Melinda got engaged in 1993 and, having already talked about starting a foundation, married in Hawaii on Jan. 1, 1994. Willie Nelson performed at the nuptials.

AP Photo/Dave Weaver

Meanwhile, Bill made no secret of the fact that he and Ann, who had traveled to Brazil, Central Africa and other far-flung locations together as a couple before breaking up in 1987, continued to enjoy their tradition of annual getaways—a long weekend every spring at her beach cottage in North Carolina—with Melinda's understanding. 

"We can play putt-putt while discussing biotechnology," Bill told TIME. (A source told the New York Post in the wake of the Gates divorce filing that Ann married detective Alex Kline, brother of actor Kevin Kline.)

So, that wasn't very normal, but what is when your husband is busily running one of the most successful and universally renowned companies of all time? Even their massive house, which Bill had started building when he was a bachelor, made Melinda a little uneasy at first, mainly because it was a life decision he had spearheaded without her.


"I didn't particularly want to move into that house," she admitted in her book. "In fact, I didn't feel like Bill and I were on the same page of what we wanted, and we had little time to discuss it. So in the middle of all that, I think I had a crisis of self. Who do I want to be in this marriage. And it pushed me to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do."

Melinda recalled in the book how "shocked" Bill was when she told him during her first pregnancy that, after nine years of rising through the ranks at Microsoft, she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom (not least because he wasn't going to be slowing down anytime soon). She was well aware they were extremely lucky to not need her income, so she seized the opportunity, knowing how much it had meant to her having her mom around when she was growing up.

Jeff Christensen/Newsmakers

Daughter Jennifer was born in April 1996, followed by son Rory in May 1999 and daughter Phoebe in September 2002.

Melinda said on What's Her Story that she and Bill also discussed their views on family right away. "We absolutely discussed number of children," she said. "It was imperative to me that whoever was going to be my partner in life wanted to have children and would be committed to it."

Still, she wasn't entirely sure just how involved of a dad Bill would end up being. And neither was he. 

"I used to think I wouldn't be all that interested in the baby until she was two or so and could talk," Bill told TIME when Jennifer was about 7 months old. "But I'm totally into it now. She's just started to say 'ba-ba' and have a personality."


Still, despite the resources at her disposal, it was important to Melinda that the household tasks be split as equitably as was feasible between her and Bill. In her book, Melinda admitted to being pleasantly surprised when her husband offered to take on some of the driving when Jennifer started kindergarten at a school that was at least 30 minutes away from their house. 

"It'll give me time to talk with Jen," he told his wife. So he made the drive twice a week, to the school and then back past the house toward Microsoft, which was in the opposite direction.

"About three weeks in," Melinda wrote, "on my days, I started noticing a lot of dads dropping kids off in the classroom. So I went up to one of the moms and said, 'Hey, what's up? There are a lot of dads here.' She said, 'When we saw Bill driving, we went home and said to our husbands, 'Bill Gates is driving his child to school; you can, too.'"


Right up until the end of their marriage, who-does-what-and-when remained a hot topic in the Gates house.

Asked what was the last thing she and Bill argued about, Melinda told podcast hosts Samantha Ettus and Amy Nelson, "Oh, gosh...probably time. Who is going to spend time on what? That seems to be our commodity that we don't have enough of."

Hollywood Dads Share Their Best Advice on Father's Day
Jon Hrusa/EPA/Shutterstock

The school commute story became a go-to anecdote, but even that was a rare peek behind the curtain for Melinda, who for the duration of her personal and professional partnership with Bill preferred to keep the spotlight on their foundation's accomplishments.

Other than a bombshell revelation in the March 2009 issue of Vogue that, while the first family of Windows didn't buy their kids iPhones or iPods, sometimes she looked at her friends and said, "Ooh, I wouldn't mind having that iPhone," Melinda purposely stayed a very private person—keeping the focus on life experience and not her life when she's on the speaking circuit, writing articles or sitting down for interviews.


But there was only so much she could do when the divorce filing went public. It turned out that dividing up the money—the pair had a separation contract they asked the court to abide by while apportioning their assets—was going to be the least explosive part of the process.

They Dated? Surprising Star Couples

Though she referred to Bill as her "husband and life partner" in the acknowledgments of her 2019 book, which was released that April, the Wall Street Journal reported that she started meeting with divorce lawyers not all that long after it was published—and that she and Bill were working out the terms of the split throughout the pandemic.

Multiple sources told the publication that Melinda's concerns included her husband's past association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The disgraced financier took his own life in jail in August 2019 while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges, prompting renewed scrutiny of all the high-profile figures who came into contact with him over the years.

Unspecified documents reviewed by the WSJ noted that Melinda consulted her advisers after the New York Times reported in October 2019 that Bill had met with Epstein a number of times, including on several occasions at his Manhattan townhouse. A former employee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also told the WSJ that Melinda's concerns about the matter dated as far back as 2013. (Epstein was at the time a free man but had pleaded guilty in 2008 to solicitation and procuring a minor for prostitution.)

TV Shows & Movies About Unhappy Marriages

Contacted for comment after the divorce filing, Bill Gates' spokeswoman emphasized that any reporting suggesting that he had a personal or professional relationship with Epstein was untrue; she also directed E! News to a prior statement from 2019, which read in part: "Although Epstein pursued Gates aggressively, Gates had absolutely no business partnership or personal friendship with Epstein. Gates never socialized with Epstein or attended parties with him. It's become clear that Epstein misrepresented the nature of his meetings with Gates while also working to insert himself behind-the-scenes without Gates's knowledge. Over time, Gates and his team realized Epstein's capabilities and ideas were not legitimate and all contact with Epstein was discontinued. Bill Gates regrets ever meeting with Epstein and recognizes it was an error in judgement to do so."

Talking to CNN's Anderson Cooper in August 2021, Bill called meeting with Epstein "a huge mistake." He called his divorce "a very sad milestone" and the end of their personal partnership "a source of great personal sadness."

But, he added, "We are communicating and working at the foundation. And so that partnership, we're going to try and continue."

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Robin Hood

Melinda told CBS News' Gayle King in March 2022 that it was "not one thing, it was many things" that led to their divorce. But Bill having "meetings with Jeffrey Epstein" did bother her.

"I also met Jeffrey Epstein exactly one time," Melinda added. "Yes, because I wanted to see who this man was. And I regretted it from the second I stepped in the door. He was abhorrent. He was evil personified. I had nightmares about it afterwards. So you know, my heart breaks for these young women because that's how I felt, and here I'm an older woman. My god, I feel terrible for those young women. It's awful."

His admitted affair with a Microsoft staffer was another thing, Melinda explaining to Gayle that there "came a point in time where there was enough there that I realized it just wasn't healthy, and I couldn't trust what we had."

And despite the nonchalance Bill evinced decades ago when speaking of his enduring friendship with Ann Winblad, a source told People in May 2021 that their bond took its toll on his relationship with Melinda.

Do-Gooder Gallery

Now 59, Melinda had intimated that she wanted to recapture her own voice after—as she wrote in The Moment of Lift—losing track of it while working alongside her husband for so many years.

Remembering the first time she asked to co-write the foundation's annual end-of-year dispatch recapping the months just past and plans for the days ahead, a missive Bill usually took care of, "I thought we were going to kill each other," she wrote. "I felt, 'Well, this just might end the marriage right here."

Melinda continued, "I told him that there are some issues where my voice can make an impact, and in those cases, I should be speaking—separately or along with him. It got hot. We both got angry. It was a big test for us—not about how you come to agreement but about what you do when you can't agree. And we took a long time to agree. Until then, we simmered."

SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

And still, his signature was on the January 2013 newsletter, though it was sent out along with a supplementary article by Melinda.

At the same time, Bill was historically content to chart his own course as he saw fit. He stepped down as CEO of Microsoft in 2000, becoming chief software architect and staying on as chairman of the board of directors. In 2008 he moved into a part-time role, wanting to focus most of his energies on the foundation. He remained chairman of the board until 2014.

He left the board entirely in March of 2020—a planned exit, his rep said, but the Wall Street Journal reported that at the time of his departure the board was also in the middle of an investigation into a past relationship Bill had with a Microsoft employee.

fotopress/Getty Images

"Microsoft received a concern in the latter half of 2019 that Bill Gates sought to initiate an intimate relationship with a company employee in the year 2000," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement to E! News at the time. "A committee of the Board reviewed the concern, aided by an outside law firm, to conduct a thorough investigation. Throughout the investigation, Microsoft provided extensive support to the employee who raised the concern."

People familiar with the matter told the WSJ that the Microsoft cofounder resigned from the board before the investigation was complete. 

Bill's spokeswoman told the publication, "There was an affair almost 20 years ago which ended amicably." Moreover, his "decision to transition off the board was in no way related to this matter. In fact, he had expressed an interest in spending more time on his philanthropy starting several years earlier."

Celebrity Shout Outs on International Women’s Day

Also on May 16, 2021, the New York Times reported that people with direct knowledge of such behavior said Bill was known to make advances toward women who worked for him, that he did it at both Microsoft (including the 2000 matter reported to the board) and the foundation. Some employees told the paper they didn't approve of his behavior, but they also wouldn't consider it predatory.

His spokeswoman said that any "claim of mistreatment of employees is also false. The rumors and speculation surrounding Gates's divorce are becoming increasingly absurd, and it's unfortunate that people who have little to no knowledge of the situation are being characterized as 'sources.'"

At the same time the Microsoft board was investigating the accusation against Bill in 2019, Melinda was embarking on a fresh campaign to devote time and resources to the uplift of women and girls around the world, which in her view remains the way to achieve a truly equitable society.

"I knew I would always want to go back to work again because I loved working and I loved what I could learn being around curious people," she said on What's Her Story, referring to the break she took to stay home with her growing family. She added, "For my daughters I hope they choose whatever feels right to them and their spouse, same with my son, if and when they choose to have children—and are able to figure out, how do you blend career and family life?"

New York Fashion Week 2024: Star Sightings

Asked if she felt she had reached her personal potential, Melinda laughed and said, "I hope I have not! I hope until the day I die I have not reached my full potential. I think in life we have so much to learn."

Soon after, Melinda found out she was even tougher than she thought.

She had "kept working with the person I was moving away from, and I need to show up and be my best self every single day," she told Fortune last year. "So even though I might be crying at 9 a.m. and then have to be on a videoconference at 10 a.m. with the person I'm leaving, I have to show up and be my best...And I learned as a leader that I could do it."

Bill, who's turning 68 on Oct. 28, painted a rosier picture of their continued joint work for the foundation, telling the Sunday Times in April 2022, "We have a, you know, super important, complex, close relationship where we've chosen to work together. And I'm very happy that we get to work together."

Gotham/GC Images

He also expressed zero regrets about the "great marriage" he shared at one point with his ex-wife, saying he'd "marry Melinda all over again."

Earlier this year Bill went public with girlfriend Paula Hurd, the widow of Oracle CEO Mark Hurd, who died in October 2019. But he and Melinda are forever joined beyond the foundation, becoming grandparents in March when daughter Jennifer welcomed her first child with husband Nayel Nassar, and reuniting for a family dinner to celebrate Phoebe's 21st birthday in September. Melinda and Phoebe also hit a few events together last month, including the Michael Kors show at New York Fashion Week and the Clooney-hosted Albie Awards.

Talking to Gayle King on CBS Mornings last year, Melinda acknowledged the "painful stuff" divorces are made of.

"At the end of the day, though," she added, "I started on this journey of healing, and I feel like I'm starting to get to the other side. And I do feel like I'm turning a page in the chapter now...I'm actually really excited about what's to come and life ahead for me."

And there's nothing wrong with appreciating what was. Read on for more famous couples who split up after many years of marriage:

Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen

The NFL star and the supermodel touched down in divorce court after 13 years of marriage, confirming Oct. 28, 2022, on their respective social media platforms that they had finalized the terms of their split.

"We arrived at this decision amicably and with gratitude for the time we spent together," Brady, who shares kids Benjamin, 12, and Vivian, 9, with Bündchen, wrote in his Instagram Story message. "We are blessed with beautiful and wonderful children who will continue to be the center of our world in every way. We will continue to work together as parents to always ensure they receive the love and attention they deserve."

The Super Bowl MVP noted that he and Bündchen didn't arrive at this decision lightly. "Doing so is, of course, painful and difficult, like it is for many people who go through the same thing every day around the world," he continued. "However we wish only the best for each other as we pursue whatever new chapters in our lives that are yet to be written."

Sylvester Stallone and Jennifer Flavin

Just three months after their 25th wedding anniversary, Flavin filed for divorce on Aug. 19, 2022, triggering a host of rumors about potential trivialities that could have inspired her decision.

Stallone nipped one in the bud—they didn't have a falling-out over what kind of dog he wanted to get—and told TMZ, "I will always love her. She's an amazing woman. She's the nicest human being I've ever met."

He also said in a statement at the time, "I love my family. We are amicably and privately addressing these personal issues."

The parents of three daughters—Sophia, 26, Sistine, 24, and Scarlet, 20—have since put up a united front on social media, prompting hopes that the Rocky star and his bride maybe just needed time in their respective corners to regroup.

Tish and Billy Ray Cyrus

The parents of daughters Miley, 29, and Noah, 22, and son Braison , 28 (plus he adopted her daughter Brandi and son Trace, 33), tied the knot in 1993.

The country superstar filed for divorce in 2010, saying in a statement at the time that they were "trying to work through some personal matters." Mission accomplished, at least temporarily, because Cyrus withdrew his petition in March 2011. He refiled in June 2013, however, and she counter-filed. And yet they again decided to stay together, Tish crediting couples therapy for bringing them closer. 

But Tish filed for divorce again in April, her petition stating that she and her husband of 29 years had been living apart since February 2020.

"It is after 30 years, five amazing children and a lifetime of memories, we have decided to go our separate ways—not with sadness, but with love in our hearts," the friendly exes told People in a joint statement. "We have grown up together, raised a family we can be so proud of, and it is now time to create our own paths."

In November 2022, Billy Ray's rep confirmed he was engaged to singer Firerose, and Tish accepted Prison Break star Dominic Purcell's proposal in April 2023.

Bill and Melinda Gates

The parents of three and co-founders of the internationally renowned Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation revealed in May 2021 they were splitting up after 27 years of marriage. A Washington judge finalized their divorce just three months later, a ready-to-roll separation contract making the division of their estimated $130 billion fortune less onerous.

But in the interim, the Wall Street Journal reported that she had started meeting with divorce lawyers as early as May 2019, and reasons why being married to the co-founder of Microsoft wasn't all it was cracked up to be started to emerge.

Sean Penn and Robin Wright

Both recently divorced, Penn from Madonna and Wright from Dane Witherspoon, the actors fell in love making the 1990 crime drama State of Grace. They welcomed daughter Dylan in 1991 and son Hopper in 1993 and then decided to tie the knot in 1996. They purposely moved to Northern California to raise their kids away from "the bubble of celebrity," Wright told Vanity Fair in 2015, but tumult followed and, after a few false starts, they officially divorced in 2010.

"I believe we were together not only to have our beautiful children but to learn how to love...for the next time around, the right way," the House of Cards star said. "And then, what I'm looking for in people now is kindness."

At the time she was back on with ex-fiancé Ben Foster, but after that ended she moved on with Clement Giraudet, marrying him in 2018. TMZ reported Sept. 24 that Wright has filed for divorce, citing July 31, 2022, as their date of separation.

Penn famously dated Charlize Theron for a couple of years and then married Leila George in January 2020, but she filed for divorce in October 2021.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver

The power couple—and that was even before they were governor and first lady of California—announced in May 2011 that they had separated after 25 years of marriage.

A week later, Schwarzenegger came clean about fathering a son with his family's former housekeeper of more than 20 years. Joseph Baena, 25, enjoys a relationship with his dad (as well as an affinity for the weight room) and is pursuing his own career as an actor.

The Shriver-Schwarzenegger union, which produced daughters Katherine, 33, and Christina, 31, and sons Patrick, 29, and Christopher, 24, didn't officially end until December 2021, when the grandparents of two finalized their divorce.

Teresa and Joe Giudice

His-and-hers prison sentences for fraud were not kind to the Real Housewives of New Jersey stars' 20-year marriage. He ended up being deported to Italy after spending three years behind bars, and they divorced in September 2020.

"I can't get mad at her," Joe told E! News of his ex a month later. "She's the mother of my four daughters and she's taking care of them right now because obviously I can't. What am I going to do, have the kids move here to a country that they don't even know the language? That would be a disaster...Thank God they're tough kids, but it's still a damn shame. At the end of the day, you know, we're doing our best."

Teresa is once again a married woman, wedding Luis Ruelas in August 2022, the couple having met in a chance encounter at the Jersey shore. The bride's four daughters—Gia, 22, Gabriella, 19, Milania, 17, and Audriana, 13—were all in attendance. 

Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins

Married for all intents and purposes, if not on paper, the Oscar winners separated in the summer of 2009 after 23 years together, having met making the rowdy 1988 baseball romance Bull Durham.

They share sons Jack, 33, and Miles, 31, plus Robbins helped raise Sarandon's daughter, Eva Amurri, 38.

"People were coming up to me in the street and saying, 'I cried and cried when I heard,'" Sarandon told The Telegraph in 2010 after their breakup. "Well, I was sadder! I didn't think it would ever happen, either. You bring people into your life at certain times. Maybe you have a relationship to have children and you realize that it's fulfilled after that point."

Robbins ended up marrying actress Gratiela Brancusi in 2017, but it wasn't widely known they'd taken that step until he filed for divorce in January 2021.

Mel Gibson and Robyn Moore

Though she didn't file for divorce from the father of her seven children until April 2009, according to Reuters, their separation began just days after his explosive drunk-driving arrest in July 2006.

"Throughout our marriage and separation we have always strived to maintain the privacy and integrity of our family and will continue to do so," they said in a 2009 statement confirming the end of their union. At the time, Gibson was already expecting a child, his eighth, with then-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. (He's since become a dad of nine, welcoming son Lars in 2017 with Rosalind Ross.)

"It was an unfortunate incident," Gibson said on Variety's Playback podcast in 2016, referring to his 2006 arrest and the resulting backlash over anti-Semitic comments he made to the officer that pulled him over. "I was loaded and angry and arrested. I was recorded illegally by an unscrupulous police officer who was never prosecuted for that crime...So, not fair. I guess as who I am, I'm not allowed to have a nervous breakdown, ever."

Kody and Christine Brown

The TLC star's third of four "sister wives"—and mother of six of his 18 children—left the family's Arizona home in November 2021 after 27 years together and moved to Utah.

"I started thinking maybe this isn't working for me," Christine told People in August. "And then I stopped believing in polygamy. I realized I didn't really want to live it anymore. I didn't like sharing a husband or feeling like I wasn't important."

Kody legally married first wife Meri Brown in 1990, after which sister wives Janelle Brown and Christine joined him in spiritual matrimony in 1993 and 1994, respectively. He and Meri divorced and fourth wife Robyn Brown became his legally recognized spouse in 2014. 

"I want a guy who actually loves me and wants to be with me intimately," Christine said. "I will be a monogamist from here on out."

Janelle has also since left the fold, Kody revealing in the December 2022 reunion special that they were separated.

Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott

OK, so the couple that earn their first billion together don't necessarily stay together.

News of the Amazon founder and sometimes-richest-man-in-the-world's divorce from his wife of 25 years in January 2019 came as a shock—though mainly because Bezos was already involved with not-yet-divorced Good Day L.A. co-host Lauren Sanchez and the National Enquirer published their romantic text messages. (Bezos, who shares four children with Scott, countered that they were long-separated so the tabloid didn't have much of a scoop.) 

Scott, who married Seattle science teacher Dan Jewett in March 2021, received a reported $38.3 billion worth of Amazon stock in her divorce settlement, turning her into one of the world's richest people as well. She signed The Giving Pledge, a promise to give at least half of her fortune to charity, in 2019.

Jewett made the vow as well after their wedding, but Scott filed for divorce on Sept. 26, 2022.

Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman

Married for 30 years, the Matilda co-stars announced in 2012 that they were separating—but the parents of three never pulled the trigger on a divorce.

"We're still separated, but we see each other often, and we're still a family," Perlman told People in August. "We can do things together, we can do things separately. I'm really, really glad that Danny and I were able to navigate some rough days to be able to have this different kind of relationship. I think it's pretty rare, but we agree on so many things that it makes sense."

(Originally published May 29, 2021, at 3 a.m. PT)