Divorce Bezos: How Washington's "Community Property" Will Divide the Assets of the World's Richest Man


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January 11, 2019, 16:32 GMT

By Danny Cevallos

The CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, announced this week that he wanted to divorce his wife MacKenzie. Both were married in 1993 and have four children. Bezos founded the company in 1994, just after his marriage.

Bezos is considered the richest man in the world, with an estimated value of 147 billion dollars. He also does not have a marriage contract with MacKenzie. This means that after his divorce, his wife could become one of the richest women in the world.

In the United States, there are two main approaches to divide matrimonial property: the "fair division" and the "commons".

Most states use the common law, the "equitable distribution", whereby each spouse holds property separately during the marriage.

In New York, for example, when both spouses also contribute to a long marriage, the courts try to share the property equally. However, equitable distribution does not necessarily mean equal distribution. Equitable distribution considers marriage as an economic partnership to which both parties contribute as a spouse, parent, employee or homemaker.

The distribution of assets depends not only on the financial contribution of each spouse, but also a wide range of unpaid services provided to the partnership, such as household chores, the education of children and the provision of the emotional support necessary to maintain the spouse at work.

Washington, where Bezos resides and his ex-wife, is one of the few states to use the "ownership of the community" approach. Each spouse has an interest in the property of the community and there is no separate spouse property. All property acquired after the date of marriage is presumed to be property of the community, regardless of how it is treated during the marriage. A spouse who wants to go beyond this presumption has the burden of demonstrating with clear and convincing evidence that a specific good is an exception to the rule.

The Washington courts can not consider any allegation of spousal misconduct when distributing property. This means that the "immoral or physically abusive conduct of the spouse within the conjugal relationship" will not generally affect the distribution by the court.

The real challenge in the Bezos case may not be for the couple; it may be for the court, which is required to somehow assess matrimonial property. A Washington court of first instance inheriting the Bezos case must assess the assets of a couple whose net worth would be greater than that of Iceland, Tunisia, Jamaica and Estonia combined, the everything while an understaffed court handles the rest of his overworked record.

The ultimate goal of the court is not mathematical precision, but fairness. Especially in the case of a marriage of 25 years or more, as in the case of Bezos, the objective of the court is to place the parties in "an almost equal financial situation for the rest of their lives".