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Melinda and Bill Gates: What’s in a Name? What’s it Worth?

Melinda and Bill Gates: What’s in a Name? What’s it Worth?

From Bloomberg: It’s not easy to assess the value of a surname in a divorce proceeding, but valuing it as “goodwill” and treating it like property may be the answer, says Greg Bordelon, associate law professor at the University of Maine School of Law. In the case of the Gates divorce, the value of the surname is an open question.

If you do not know who Melinda Ann French is, that’s okay; many may not. It may help if you were told that she is also known as Melinda Gates.

As we know, 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. We also are very much aware that the Gates fortune is valued at over $145 billion. A question to ask is—what is the value of the Gates name?

Taking the surname of a spouse has been a custom for centuries, and states have different presumptions with respect to the effect of marriage on a spouse’s last name. In some states, marriage does not change one’s name legally; in others, there is a legal presumption that a spouse’s name is changed by a validly issued marriage license or by changing documents such as driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, and passports.

Court cases have decided the proper designation of a child’s last name (between battling parents), whether a person was forced to take a spouse’s surname during marriage, and whether a spouse can continue to use their birth surname during the marriage. The question of the economic value of a marital surname, however, and the extent of its use once that marriage has ended (if not decided in a divorce proceeding), remains essentially an open question.

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