- Experts in PR and divorce said Melinda French Gates benefits from recent news about Bill Gates.
- Various outlets reported Bill Gates had made women at Microsoft feel uncomfortable at work.
- The news can provide Melinda more public sympathy, and might help her when negotiating a settlement.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Experts say Melinda French Gates is winning the public opinion battle after announcing her divorce from Bill after 27 years of marriage.
After Bill and Melinda Gates announced on May 3 they would be getting divorced, a flood of news articles have cast a negative light on the Microsoft cofounder.
The Wall Street Journal reported Microsoft’s board hired a law firm to investigate Gates in 2019 over an alleged affair with an employee in 2000. Unnamed former employees of Gates told The New York Times he made advances towards them that made for an uncomfortable workplace.
Though by law Melinda will not benefit financially from Bill’s bad behavior, the news helps her separate herself from Bill and may help her negotiate for more assets, five experts in crisis communication, public relations, and divorce finance told Insider
“I think the sympathy and empathy is going to be with her because of the perception that there’s another Bill Gates that we didn’t fully know about beyond the aw-shucks computer nerd,” said Bryan Reber, a professor in crisis communication leadership at the University of Georgia.
Melinda becomes the sympathetic party as news reports continue to highlight Bill’s inappropriate behavior.
Though news reports on Bill’s alleged affairs stem from unnamed sources, Reber said the media blitz appears to him like a planned campaign from Melinda French Gates’ team.
Both Bill and Melinda released identical statements on May 3, suggesting the two had planned their divorce and announcement message with their teams well in advance. The recent Wall Street Journal report that Melinda had met with divorce lawyers in 2019 and the $4 billion worth of publicly disclosed transfers made from Bill to Melinda also signals she “had a plan in mind” before announcing the divorce, Reber said.
Representatives for Melinda French Gates did not respond to Insider’s request for comment. A spokesperson for Bill Gates in a statement told Insider “it is extremely disappointing that there have been so many untruths published about the cause, the circumstances and the timeline of Bill Gates’ divorce. The characterization of his meetings with Epstein and others about philanthropy is inaccurate, including who participated.”
The statement continued: “Similarly, any claim that Gates spoke of his marriage or Melinda in a disparaging manner is false. The claim of mistreatment of employees is also false. The rumors and speculation surrounding Gates’ 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.'”
-Bill Gates (@BillGates) May 3, 2021
Whether planned by Melinda or not, the timing of the media blitz works in her favor, according to Gil Rudawsky, vice president at the PR firm GroundFloor Media. The public has a better idea of why Melinda would divorce her husband and it allows readers to sympathize with her.
“The timing does seem fortuitous,” Rudawsky said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some knowledge that that was going to come out and people were working behind the scenes to get this information out before these allegations came out.”
The bad press surrounding Bill allows Melinda to distance herself from Microsoft and their marriage ahead of the divorce.
Reber said when fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos divorced his wife Mackenzie Scott, she could easily move forward because the two did not share a philanthropic foundation or work as a team in any business venture. Bill and Melinda, however, had become a “brand” that Melinda needed to separate herself from.
“It’s always been Bill and Melinda,” Reber said. “Now that she is asking to go by French Gates, that’s an illustration of wanting to say, ‘We’re entering a new time and I’m newly independent.'”
The divorce court can’t take Bill’s bad behavior into account, but the Melinda could use it to her advantage when negotiating a settlement.
Melinda may win in the eyes of the public, but legally, the ways she can benefit from Bill’s bad behavior are slim, certified divorce financial analysts said.
Washington is a “no fault” divorce state, meaning the couple does not have to prove one party was to blame for the divorce, but rather the couple had irreconcilable differences. The court cannot grant Melinda a more favorable settlement if Bill had committed adultery, Nancy Hetrick, a certified divorce financial analyst at Smarter Divorce Solutions, LLC told Insider.
“The reality is in almost every state in the United States they have ‘no-fault statutes,’ which means if somebody engages in bad behavior during the marriage, sorry for your bad luck, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the law and it’s not going to impact your divorce settlement,” Hetrick said.
But during the period the two negotiate their divorce settlement, Bill’s bad press could help Melinda. Hetrick said divorce mediators find there’s a “guilt window,” or a period of time when one person who engaged in bad behavior during the relationship feels better about moving on by giving their long-term spouse a favorable settlement.
The best case scenario for Melinda Gates would be to get 50% of all assets, said Avani Ramnani, a CDFA with Francis Financial. She added Melinda would also benefit if assets Bill had acquired before marriage are included in marital property and therefore allocated to her.
The couple had not signed a prenup, or a legal agreement signed prior to marriage that decides how much each party gets if divorced.
But Donna Cheswick, a CDFA on the board of advisors for the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts, said Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce is ultimately unlike any other due to the magnitude of their financial holdings. Cheswick said most older people who get divorced face significant financial and lifestyle changes, due the money lost when savings are no longer pooled by two people and the inability to rejoin the workforce after a certain age.
In Melinda’s case, she won’t be dealing with financial challenges any time soon.
“Everyone wants to kind of look at the whole Bill and Melinda thing because it’s glamorous and everyone knows who they are, but what people are reading in the media in regards to their divorce is not anything that they can reckon with,” Cheswick said.