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The Bezos effect: high net worth divorce and financial settlements

High net worth for divorce

At the beginning of this month, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, finalised his divorce settlement to ex-wife MacKenzie. According to the law in Washington USA, assets acquired during marriage are to be divided equally. Bezos has a reported net worth of more than $157 billion, so his ex stands to gain a lot. An awful lot.

However, as a US lawyer pointed out:

“The major thing for billionaires is that most of the time, their assets are very complex and mostly illiquid — with Bezos, a lot of his assets are linked to Amazon stock.”

In the first of two articles for high worth couples on the brink of separating, Director Anne Leiper looks at the implications of financial disclosure for divorce. She also explains how her expert advice and determination for full disclosure can save you considerable time, money and stress.

Your business is his business?

The settlement agreed between Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos highlights one of the issues I deal with on a regular basis - joint financial involvement in a family business or group of companies. This ranges from a couple both being on the Board, to joint shares ownership, and companies/properties registered in a single spouse’s name.

That makes high worth divorce settlements much more complicated. Indeed, the same applies for divorce settlements for any marriage or civil partnership where your finances are intertwined with your business interests.

Both spouses must ensure they fully disclose all their assets at the start of any divorce process, in order to reach a robust, reliable and reasonable settlement. If new assets are disclosed (or uncovered) at later stages, things can get very awkward indeed.

 

Divorce and your company’s value

The divorce of high profile figures within a company can also have a detrimental effect of the company’s worth too. Bezos retained 75% of his shares in Amazon (59.1 million shares), still making him the wealthiest man in the world, whilst his wife retains 25%. Crucially, MacKenzie relinquished all her voting rights to her ex, so he still has control over the company. Perhaps it’s this openness that has seen Amazon’s shares rise 20% this year, rather than dip as some expected.

 

Defining your assets prior to divorce

So, what is the process of sorting and defining your financial assets? If you have a pre-nuptial agreement that lays out the basics, this is a very good place to start. It enables both parties to say “I came to this marriage with £xm”.

In a pre-nuptial agreement, there is usually agreement reached over how these and subsequent assets are to be allocated in the event of a couple separating. (If you’re not married, a cohabitation agreement can achieve the same.) Whilst a pre-nup is not currently legally binding in the UK courts, it is a significant factor the court will take into account.

 

What’s included in full financial disclosure

Financial settlements rely on complete and full disclosure by both parties of all monies and assets, including:

  • Cash in current accounts
  • Property, whether owned individually or jointly
  • Businesses owned
  • Savings
  • Investments
  • Pensions -workplace, state and private
  • Company shares
  • Personal assets such as jewellery, art, cars, etc

If you consider that your partner has not disclosed all their assets, whether intentionally or not, we will investigate further. If disclosure is not forthcoming, we can go to court to obtain orders to force disclosure. The court has the power to order your ex to fully disclose their assets. If you later discover assets that were not revealed at the time of the Consent Order, it can be expensive and difficult to go back to the court later and ask for more money.

Remember, disclosure works both ways. You may consider that you already know what your spouse owns (or not), or consider that parts of your financial affairs are simply none of their concern. As above, non or partial disclosure could result in legal action from your spouse.

 

Getting your financial agreement sorted

The good news is you can agree a financial divorce settlement without going to court. AT LGFL, this is the route we always advise. You can use mediation to come to an amicable and mutually agreeable solution that is tailor-made for you, your family and your situation.

With our help as experienced family lawyers, a legally binding agreement known as a Consent Order can be drawn up that works for both of you. This method keeps your divorce financial details out of the public domain (and hopefully, the press too). You can also include non-disclosure clauses.

If you can’t agree, then the process will have at least provided considerable information for any subsequent court hearing and ruling. It is a condition that you will have at least met together to consider mediation before you go to court (unless you are separating from an abusive partner).

At LGFL, we relish high worth divorce cases, applying our considerable expertise and experience to sort through any complex maze of financial arrangements and structures. Call us to discuss your situation in complete confidence either in person or via Skype if you are living or working abroad.