$140 billion is Jeff’s & Mackenzie’s joint net worth – not Jeff’s alone

Reports of Jeff Bezos’s impending divorce sometimes claim that it’s going to cost him half of his $140-billion fortune. He got married in 1993, moved to Washington in 1994 and founded Amazon shortly. Washington is a community property state, so the assets accumulated since marriage will be split 50/50 upon divorce. I’ve seen this explanation more than once: it makes sense but misses the obvious. If the community-property principle applies, Jeff Bezos has never been worth $100-plus billion. It’s the married couple, Jeff and Mackenzie, that’s worth $140 billion – as a couple, together. The law seems clear on this.

On the other hand, most US states are not community property jurisdictions (only nine are, including California and Texas) – they are common-law states as far as marriage is concerned. In these parts, when Partner 1 buys something, it’s considered her property, unless she buys it in the name of both partners. At divorce, however, Partner 2 may be able to receive some of Partner 1’s assets (some, possibly, acquired before marriage). In this case, it’s probably OK to speak of Partner 1 actually losing some of her wealth to Partner 2. Even so, a married person’s assets are never quite unencumbered; that person’s net worth is not fully theirs.

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