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Lessons for High-Net-Worth Divorce from the Highest-Net-Worth Divorce of them all


Earlier this month, Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos divorced after 25 years of marriage. The divorce, finalized in Washington state's King County (containing Seattle and a number of its suburbs), split an incredibly high-net-worth estate.

While relatively little information was disclosed, we do know (according to a Bloomberg News article) that the couple agreed on a parenting plan in the days preceding the official divorce. We also know (in large part, from a MacKenzie Bezos tweet) that she will retain 25 percent of their shared Amazon stock, but will give away any ownership stake in Jeff Bezos's other ventures, including the Washington Post and space exploration company Blue Origin.

That still leaves MacKenzie Bezos with far more money than any of us will see: The stock is worth $38.3 billion at its current valuation. Of course, by retaining the 75 percent of the couples' shares in Amazon, Jeff Bezos has $114.8 billion in Amazon stock alone and retains his status as the world's most wealthy person.

And to her credit - making perhaps a poignant contrast between the two - she's pledged half the fortune to charity via the Giving Pledge. That still leaves her with more than $19 billion in assets plus funding a whole lot of good.

As a Business Insider article on the divorce pointed out, there are some issues with the Bezos divorce - and other high-net-worth divorces, though clearly not to this level - that make it more complicated than your average divorce.

In the article, attorney Jacqueline Newman observed "the major thing for billionaires is that most of the time, their assets are very complex and mostly illiquid." Obviously, Amazon stock is not something that you can access as easily as cash in a bank account. Selling your stock in a company means that you might cede some or all control of that company (depending on how much you retain), and it can also cause the value of the stock to fluctuate.

Valuation is another issue. As Newman pointed out, the Amazon stock prices and amount of stock the couple owned allowed their lawyers to calculate. But the assets of a company like the Washington Post might be more difficult to value: It can and often does require financial professionals to help determine a value that can then be factored into the total estate.

And, of course, depending on how public the divorce is, the divorce itself can cause people's perceptions of the company to diminish and for the stock to take a hit. While a company as big and as integral as Amazon is well-insulated against such a possibility, not every company has those guardrails in place.

Given all of this, one of the best things a high-net-worth couple can do is consider a collaborative divorce. It has some distinct advantage over a traditional divorce, the first being that it utilizes one agreed-upon financial neutral to do valuation and help the couple determine what their assets are. This eliminates a lot of the legal back-and-forth that can happen if each party in a debate is arguing about the valuation of certain assets.

It also keeps the divorce out of the public eye - which could benefit stock valuations and the size of an estate in the long run. A divorce that gets to the courtroom is a public event; people can come and see the proceedings, and if involves a public figure, could even be reported on.

With a collaborative divorce, details are worked out in lawyers' offices rather than in courtrooms, so the process stays private. Also, there's more latitude for flexibility with a collaborative divorce compared to a traditional divorce. In a collaborative divorce, the parties can negotiate a settlement creatively, whereas with a divorce that gets to the courtroom, the decision is left up to the judge, who will often opt for default parenting plans and asset divisions.

If you're interested in learning about your options for divorce, you don't have to have Amazon founder-level money - the Law Office of Lisa A. Vance is open to schedule initial consultations to all people looking to make a new start. If you do feel your estate size puts you in the high-net-worth category, or even if you just have ownership or valuation issues in common with those seeking high-net-worth divorces, we have the expertise that allows us to help you. We're happy to make recommendations based on your situation.

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