You might not think of your last name as an asset during a divorce, but treating it as property might be the smart decision to make. In the case of the recent Gates or Bezos divorces, or any high net worth divorce with a recognizable surname, it may be just as valuable as a more tangible asset.
You may have heard that the mega moguls Bill and Melinda Gates are divorcing. They are doing so in a state with community property laws, a legal system that presumes joint ownership of all assets acquired during the marriage. The Gates Fortune is presently valued at over $145 billion. A question to ask is—what is the value of the Gates name?
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and his former wife, Mackenzie recently divorced in 2019. She has since changed her surname to Scott, derivative of her middle name. Bezos’ wealth surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, but his lack of giving to nonprofits has been apparent. The exploitative working conditions of Amazon workers became visible to the public in recent years as well due to worker strikes and employees speaking out on the abuse in warehouses. It is understandable that the philanthropic Scott, who has donated $5.8 billion of her wealth to various causes in 2020, would not want to be associated with her former husband’s name. She signed The Giving Pledge, which was a dedication to giving half of her wealth to charities over her lifetime or in her will.
It has been customary for centuries to take one’s spouse’s last name and some states have different presumptions on the effect of a marriage on one’s last name. In some states, one’s surname is not legally changed after marriage; yet in other states legal presumption that a spouse’s name is changed by a validly issued marriage license or by changing various legal documents.
An agreement entered into before the marriage or a divorce decree can determine the use of a surname, or an agreement during the marriage or after separation. There are reports that the Gates consented to a separation agreement. Melinda Gates has decided to keep her surname.
A surname that is as recognizable and acclaimed as Gates has the potential to add to one’s revenues post-divorce. There is controversy, however, when a name’s ability to generate interest still exists after the marriage union does not. This can bring up a lot of questions. Is the name a property right? Can the ex spouse have access to future revenue because of the use of the surname of the spouse?
A solution to dealing with this complex situation might be to treat the surname as a business asset, or goodwill. Although the courts do not treat it as such parties are free to negotiate this issue. However, if the parties are not able to agree on this issue the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court’s have no authority to intervene on this matter and will not force a spouse to give up their married name.
An experienced Massachusetts divorce attorney can guide high net worth couples through the long checklist of items to agree on in a high asset divorce. If you are considering retaining a high net worth divorce attorney and want to understand all your options, then please call us at (978) 341-5040 for a consultation today.