Will Jeff Bezos be able to rely on a ‘stellar contribution’ argument to retain more of his wealth?

The announcement by Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos that they are to divorce hit the headlines around the globe. Mr Bezos, founder of Amazon and the richest man in the world, has an estimated personal wealth of some $137 billion. Amazon meanwhile is worth approaching $800 billion. The announcement came hot on the heels of the UK’s ‘Divorce Day’, the day on which the most divorce petitions are traditionally filed – though clearly, this is no ordinary divorce.

So what might be the outcome in the settlement – and are there any potential learnings for ‘ordinary’ couples?

Liz Allen, partner and head of family law at Stephens Scown LLP, commented:

How much could Mrs Bezos be entitled to?

“This is set to be the biggest divorce settlement anywhere, ever, seeing as Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest man and the couple have been married for 25 years. Clearly their divorce will take place in America and be subject to State led laws there, but in English law any marriage of over 20 years is regarded as a long one in which each spouse should generally be entitled to an equal division of the capital including the value of any business asset. Amazon was built up by Jeff Bezos during the marriage having been formed just one year after the marriage date. Therefore in English law the whole of his shareholding in the Amazon business would be regarded as ‘matrimonial property’ and divisible equally. On that basis, there is an argument that Mrs Bezos would be entitled to half of their combined wealth.”

The ‘Stellar’ defence against a 50-50 split?

“In such an exceptional case as this one with truly enormous sums of money involved, I believe that Jeff Bezos may be able to bring to bear a claim that he has made a special or ‘stellar’ contribution and therefore retain more than 50% of their combined wealth.

“This is an extremely difficult argument to bring and one which has very rarely been successful in English law in a financial case. It has been alluded to in some divorce settlements – when Paul McCartney divorced Heather Mills it was said that he should be able to rely on his stellar contribution by reason of his musical genius. In that case however, the marriage was very short indeed so very little of McCartney’s fortune was accumulated during the marriage. Paul McCartney was therefore able to rely on the non-matrimonial nature of his assets to avoid any serious damage to his overall wealth. The same defence would not be available to Jeff Bezos due to the matrimonial nature of the wealth – it has all been accumulated during their marriage.

“It also raises interesting questions around different kinds of genius or brilliance. It was said that Paul McCartney would be able to bring the stellar contribution argument because his success was a result of his own artistic genius that naturally resides in him. It was an independent talent that he inherently possesses. Is business genius similar, or more the result of hard work and having a supportive partner who makes a crucial contribution in their own way?

“In financial cases, the stellar argument only has a realistic chance of succeeding in extremely high value cases – into the high millions and billions. But I would expect that it is an argument Mr Bezos has a good chance of successfully bringing (should he wish to do so).

“Even if he does, he will still be facing a massive settlement with Mackenzie. Most likely, it would not go lower than somewhere in the region of a two-thirds to one-third split. So Mrs Bezos would still be looking at something upwards of $40 billion.”

What lessons for ordinary folk?

“There are a number of points this exceptional case helps to highlight for ‘ordinary’ couples including high net worth individuals.

“Firstly, there is no business immunity. An English divorce court generally has the power to transfer a shareholding in a company whether private or public – sometimes people think that their business or shareholding would be immune from a divorce court but that is not the case. However, different considerations would apply to inherited wealth, which would often stay with whichever partner inherited it.

“Secondly, the stellar contribution argument only realistically has a chance of succeeding in cases involving truly huge amounts of money. In ‘normal’ high value cases, say involving several millions, the matrimonial assets would usually end up being split equally regardless of how active each partner had been in accumulating the wealth.

“Thirdly, the split between Mr and Mrs Bezos seems extremely amicable. But even if it wasn’t, that would make no difference to the financial settlement. Even if one party had been unfaithful, the financial split would be unaffected. People often think that if they can show one party is ‘at fault’ that will lower the amount the other party is entitled to – but that is not the case.”

How long could this take?

“An army of accountants and lawyers will be working on both sides of this case. If valuations of assets are agreed, it could all happen surprisingly quickly – perhaps within a matter of months. But if valuations are disputed or if the couple don’t agree on who gets ownership of which assets, it could drag on for much longer, perhaps several years.”

 

Stephens Scown’s family team has received top ranking from independent legal guides Chambers UK and Legal 500. Stephens Scown has over 300 staff, including more than 50 partners, across its offices in Exeter, Truro and St Austell. It is the highest ranking law firm from the South West in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For 2018. For more information visit www.stephens-scown.co.uk