The couple lives primarily in Washington State, which requires divorcing spouses to equitably divide “community property,” including all income generated during a marriage. “It seems very likely, if not 100% a certainty, that whatever Jeff Bezos has earned at Amazon has been community income,” says David Starks, a partner at the Seattle-based law firm McKinley Irvin.
If MacKenzie Bezos, 48, does indeed receive half of her husband’s assets, she would be worth more than $68 billion, making her the fifth-richest person in the world.
The Forbes journalists pride themselves on precision, presumably, when it comes to what happens to $68 billion, yet here they conflate “community property” with “50/50 division”. Somehow Americans seem unable to educate themselves on family law, which may have far more impact on their spending power than choice of career, whether to attend college, etc.
Are the assets split 50/50? “We’re a ‘fair and equitable’ state,” says DeVallance. “It is not a 50/50 state. The property division can be a disproportionate.” Does the fact that Washington State is a “community property” jurisdiction mean that assets acquired before the marriage remain with each party? “No,” explains DeVallance. “All property is before the court, including separate property, though it is somewhat rare to invade separate property.” DeVallance pointed to a November 25, 2013 appeals court decision in the divorce of Julian Calhoun and Christopher Larson (see http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/698338.pdf ). After a marriage that lasted more than 20 years, Calhoun won $139 million as her share of community property and more than $40 million from Larson’s separate property (stock in Microsoft acquired prior to the marriage):
According to the trial court, the separate property award served two objectives. First, it recognized Calhoun’s intangible contributions to the marital community. The court explained, “This was, after all, a long-term marriage in which the wife made a major contribution to all that the community accomplished, measured in terms of their children, their foster children, their impact in the broad community and their more narrow business interests.” … In other words, while Larson generated the couple’s considerable wealth, Calhoun’s intangible contributions served equally to benefit the marital community. Second, the award helped ensure Calhoun’s short- and long-term financial security. The court found that Calhoun held a college degree in English literature but was not “gainfully employed” during the marriage. Larson, in contrast, obtained significant employment and investment experience during the marriage. The court found he had a “keen business sense” and that, “[i]n recent years, he has stayed busy actively managing his extensive investments and philanthropic endeavors.” As between the two, Larson was in a better position to acquire and manage future wealth. … The $40 million separate property award—consisting of Microsoft stock and cash—provided Calhoun with immediate liquidity.
Calhoun’s request for attorney’s fees for the appeal portion of the lawsuit was unsuccessful, though not on the grounds that someone who has won $180 million in a divorce can afford to pay her own attorney.
Regarding our hypothetical scenario DeVallance says “On the basis that she is the primary parent she can ask for the house and may get it. She would receive a disproportionate share of community assets.”
[Mrs. Bezos is fortunate not to be living in Germany, where, assuming Mr. Bezos checked the “separate property” box on the marriage certificate application, she would be getting nothing more than child support (capped at $6,000 per year per child).]