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For Love or Money

Divorce makes the billionaire class proliferate even faster

My divorce lawyer did not seem to believe me and my ex-husband when we told her our divorce would be simple, by which we meant there was simply nothing to split. “No property?” she asked, flipping through the papers on her desk. “No shared bank accounts? No shared debts? No pets?” We shook our heads. “Just the Picasso,” my soon-to-be-ex-husband said. The divorce lawyer looked up from her files. “He’s kidding,” I said. “We don’t own any art.” “Oh,” she said. “I thought maybe you named your cat The Picasso.”

I doubt I’ll ever answer a question like who gets the Picasso? in earnest, but for the once-married couples who count themselves among the 2,668 billionaires in the world, this may be a more urgent inquiry. When couples of a certain class decide to go their separate ways, their wealth will, like all other areas of their life, be both easier to manage and infinitely more convoluted. At the very least, they’ll be able to afford the cost of living apart, which is, in my opinion, the only reliable metric for determining what causes married people to file: whether divorce is legally available and financially viable. Every unhappy couple can technically split up, but not every unhappy couple has separate bank accounts with enough cash saved for first and last. If you are, let’s say, a billionaire CEO who is more concerned with the equitable division of your properties around the world, or the split valuation of a priceless artwork, or how many shares of your company your spouse is entitled to, an acrimonious divorce can inspire a different kind of panic. Where the moral outcry was once won’t someone think of the children, in these circles, it’s maybe more like won’t someone think of the stockholders.

How does a billionaire divorce? The facts of a billionaire wedding are openly displayed in society pages, yet the figures of a billionaire divorce are largely kept closed in private hearings. On balance, we are offered much more information about how billionaires romance their future spouses than about how they leave them. The follow-up question seems obvious: Well, why should we know? You could argue that there are more than enough reasons to scrutinize a billionaire’s behavior without turning their personal life into public spectacle.

The billionaire, though, whether single or wed, amasses their wealth not with dollars but with some intangible sense—their earnings are perfunctory compared to the stocks and shares they hold. Meanwhile, divorce law is a strange combination of the practical and the arcane, made up of oversimplified precedents for impossibly complicated entanglements. So much of divorce law in North America, which is now defined by the widespread accessibility of no-fault divorce, tries to keep these disputes from turning into financial payments for bad behavior. At-fault divorces can seem to measure emotional damage like a ledger. No-fault divorces mean that who gets what is no longer the same—in courtrooms, at least—as asking who was right and who was wrong. A casual understanding of divorce often conceals just how bizarre it is in practice for the ultrarich. What we do know is that many of them marry in “community property states,” Washington and California in particular, which means that everything the couple gains during the marriage—income, inheritance, debts, and yes, company shares from whatever they founded or invested in—must be split evenly between both spouses once they separate.

Added, Subtracted, United, Divided

There are few divorces between billionaire couples that have resulted in billion-dollar settlements, and only some of those were billion-dollar settlements in the moment—the rest only count when adjusted for inflation. They include Adnan and Soraya Khashoggi (estimated at $874 million in 1982; equal to about $2.6 billion in 2022), Steve and Elaine Wynn (approximately $1 billion), and Alec and Jocelyn Wildenstein (confirmed $3.8 billion). The record set for most marriages by a billionaire is Ron Perelman, who has been married five times (no mention of Perelman’s marriages is complete without noting the persistent legal fight he had divorcing his fourth wife, the actress Ellen Barkin, or that he is currently married to a psychiatrist). Zhou Yahui, the billionaire at one point behind Grindr, had to transfer nearly three hundred million shares of his company to his ex-wife Li Qiong when they divorced in 2016—valued at $1.1 billion. As part of their settlement, she is not allowed to invest in any competitors.

Marriage is always, in one form or another, a shelter, though whether you hear that word and think “home,” or think it is what comes after “tax,” is a matter of wealth.

One of the rare billionaire divorces that played out in public was that of Scott Hassan, known as the third founder of Google. His divorce proceedings took seven years, after he couldn’t convince his wife, Allison Huynh, to sign a postnuptial agreement, a contract that clarifies what can and can’t be split in the event of a divorce; he started a website under her name and was accused of trying to slander her reputation. Still, he seemed to retain his belief in financial fairness. “I have no doubt,” Hassan was quoted saying as he headed into divorce proceedings with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, “we will land on a resolution that makes her a woman with generational wealth.”

When Sue Ann Arnall learned that signing a first settlement and depositing the subsequent check meant she couldn’t continue fighting for more money from her ex-husband, Harold Hamm, she used about $65,000 (presumably from the more than $900 million she had received) to finance a political campaign against the judge who ruled in her divorce. He lost his seat.

Barbara Sears Rockefeller was born to a coal miner and later married Winthrop, the grandson of one of America’s most famous billionaires, though they divorced less than two years into their marriage. Eventually she would receive $5.5 million as settlement—at the time, an astonishingly high record set for such proceedings—but in the interim between the separation and the settlement she pawned her engagement ring, which was reportedly worth $30,000, and lived off of that. She apparently liked to ask, when someone quoted her a price too high, “Who do you think I am? A Rockefeller?”

A 1990 New York Times column about John and Patricia Kluge praised the couple, divorcing after nine years of marriage, for having “a divorce made in heaven, which was refreshing, since everyone had had enough of the other kind”—an explicit contrast to Donald and Ivana Trump, the other wealthy couple of that era in ugly divorce proceedings. John Kluge was once the richest man in America, and Patricia’s divorce settlement became the subject of much gossip and even more scrutiny when the major investment she made with that money—a Virginia winery—was bought by Trump himself.

In the 1980s, Sid and Mercedes Bass first became the subject of scandal when, while still married to other people, they were caught spending the night together at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris; divorcing his then-wife, Anne Hendricks Bass, cost Sid an estimated settlement of $200 million, which an article in the Times helpfully contextualized as what then amounted to “1 percent of the stock of the Walt Disney Company.”

Elon Musk, like any good cartoon villain, exists in a rare category of true romantics—he has been married and divorced twice from the same woman, Talulah Riley. He also had his first wife, Justine Musk, sign a postnuptial agreement. In a 2010 essay for Marie Claire, Justine described what it means to be married to a Musk—how Elon won her over with time and closeness, then pushed her away for work and money. The level of acceptable risk for a marriage is very different than the level for a business. The question that the Musks’ divorce eventually came down to is impossible to answer: What binds the decisions a couple makes about their life together? Is it something that happens on a dotted line, in a sealed mediation, as a line item on a bank statement? Romances don’t rise and fall according to the terms couples set. It is the risk itself that makes the romance—not the certainty that it’ll never end with a quick initial signed using a cheap pen, but the knowledge that it could. The fear that it almost certainly will.

The Contract Construct

Most people are aware of the prenuptial agreement in all its protective contradictions and know enough to be shocked when a couple like, say, Bill and Melinda Gates are found not to have one. Couples can, for reasons of romance or humility, kick the long division down the road and rely, like Musk, on postnuptial agreements instead. As money grows, hindsight has a way of making a fifty-fifty split seem a bit more generous than fair.

Couples can, for reasons of romance or humility, kick the long division down the road and rely, like Musk, on postnuptial agreements instead.

What makes us so certain that a billionaire would be quick to consider their marriage in terms of a contract anyway? Marriage is always, in one form or another, a shelter, though whether you hear that word and think “home,” or think it is what comes after “tax,” is a matter of wealth. Perhaps the lack of a prenup is hubris (“it couldn’t be me”) or perhaps it is love (“that couldn’t be us”). It costs nothing to think of billionaires as being just like anybody else: believing in forever, risking it all for romance, and trying love all over again. But how, then, do we address the inherent imbalance caused by the fact that a single person can hold a billion dollars at all? And even more so, the fact that when a billionaire marriage ends, one billionaire often becomes two; that a broken heart, and with it, the shadow of an acrimonious divorce, can reverberate through the C-suite and beyond?

So many of the laws that claim to protect spouses and families are about maintaining a certain status quo. But this is pretty much impossible as long as the world that creates billionaires is the same one that makes their wealth a currency paid in power, and a court that turns two people into a list of their assets forces us to consider that what they had is only what they owned.

In our collective understanding of what a divorcé is or isn’t—formed by a combination of who we meet in our lives and characters we come to recognize in pop culture—a few trusted archetypes emerge within this income bracket. The billionaire husband can seem less like Prince Charming and more like Bluebeard, surrounded by whispers about what might happen to the women who dare to live on his estate. The billionaire wife, meanwhile, has only moderately more flattering archetypes at her disposal: the benevolent philanthropist, the bankrupt beauty.

Recently, AppleTV+ released Loot, an uncanny fiction made out of lifelike characters, starring Maya Rudolph as a newly divorced billionaire so unmoored by her husband’s infidelity that she decides to throw herself into actually working for her charity foundation. The references, both visual and verbal, are excellent; the homes, cars, boats, planes, and closets look exactly like what you might expect from an ex-wife of this class, though it must be a failure of culture as much as policy that we have seen enough billionaires to be able to recognize the kind of mint-green crepe de chine pajamas one would wear to sleep. Most of the jokes on Loot revolve around how well-intentioned and out of touch Rudolph’s character is; much of the pathos comes from the reminder that billionaires get broken hearts too. Is this compassion misplaced? Many ex-wives can relate to watching from a distance as their former spouse takes up a new hobby to practice, a new style to wear, a new woman to love. On the other hand, there are only so many ex-husbands willing and able to shoot themselves into space.

The best example of this, and the most expensive publicly recorded divorce of all time, is clearly the primary inspiration for Loot: the 2019 dissolution of Jeff Bezos and Mackenzie Scott’s marriage. (In profile, it is followed closely by the Gates’s 2021 divorce, though no financial judgment was awarded in that case.) Scott was entitled to half of Bezos’s stake in Amazon, but she only took 25 percent; if the couple had failed to reach a private agreement, then they would have been subjected to the laws in Washington, where Scott filed for divorce—a community property state. The shares she received were valued around $35 billion at the time, making her one of the richest women in the world and still one of the primary shareholders in the company. In February 2022, Forbes reported that Scott is giving away her billions faster than any comparable individual in history.

Her ex’s new relationship with former news anchor turned owner of an aerial film production company, Lauren Sánchez, became the focus of many tabloid stories; the gossip columnist George Rush said he couldn’t think of another affair that came even close to the political implications of an ex-husband with this kind of wealth. “It is hard,” he gracefully understated, “to humanize a multibillionaire.” Especially one with, to quote a popular Twitter saying, “big divorced guy energy.” I prefer the more elegant internet parlance, “too divorced on main:” a democratic status that can be achieved by anyone who experiences the ecstatic, nihilistic mood of those first few months after a marriage ends. (Democracy is a funny concept for the American billionaire, as they are all technically capable of buying the influence normally reserved for honest politicians and selling the very same, just like corrupt ones.)

There are other billionaire divorce clichés too—the fight-to-the-very-end kind of spouse. In my limited experience, I have seen just enough to convince me that bitter divorce feuds are as much about ending a relationship as they are about prolonging it; after all, if you won’t give up without a fight, then you will not have to think you are giving up at all. When Town and Country wrote about the legendarily rancorous divorce between Bill and Sue Gross, they called their legal proceedings a modern-day “War of the Grosses,” alluding to The War of the Roses, the 1989 satire that, as a film, did for the cultural understanding of marital real estate disputes what Kramer vs. Kramer did for custody. After Bill lost one of their shared homes, for example, he allegedly left dead fish in the air vents. Meanwhile, Sue was not prepared to risk losing her Picasso—the couple owned Le Repos. She rather inventively came up with her own form of insurance, painting a forgery and hiding the original. That way, no matter what happened, she would be able to say that she got the Picasso.

Allegedly and Supposedly, We Are All the Same

I have about as much insight into a billionaire’s divorce as a billionaire has into my divorce, which is to say, none. All I know is what I’ve heard and read—long lists of events and material goods bookended by important words like allegedly and supposedly (the vocabulary of divorce, much like that of journalism and gossip, rests right between what we want to say and what we can say). From what is visible, we see what is obvious whenever we look more closely at how billionaires live: money can make any idea possible, but it has yet to make any idea good. Perhaps they have the resources to change the scale of what they do, but they remind us that even a person’s pettiness has a finite limit.

Out of everyone who has kept a box out of sight—too many memories—or has a song that can only ever be skipped—too many feelings—there is a small group of men and women whom we can only guess are doing the same with all they own and fought to keep. These divorcés might believe it costs everything to have and hold onto anything, that what they’ve amassed must be properly valued, and still believe that this hoard is, somehow, priceless. The rest of us might believe the same but still know better. After all, what happens to the billionaires who divorce? Some of them temporarily lose while others permanently gain; some of them do what’s considered good while others stay the same kind of bad. I have often considered that knowing what a couple had to split is almost like knowing what they had to share. We wonder: What made their house feel like a home? But like with all questions of love and money, there is nothing to be learned from the people who have the most of it.