Over the past week the world’s press has been full of the announcement that Bill and Melinda Gates are to get divorced. They were married for 27 years and have three adult children.

Melinda Gates’ divorce petition cited ‘irretrievable breakdown’ as the reason for the marriage, as required by Washington State Law. Though the pair seem to wish to keep their split amicable, indicating that they are planning to continue working together in the future, the vast wealth of assets owned between the two have the potential to be a source of extensive litigation.

Bill Gates made his fortune through his company Microsoft, which he founded in the 1970s. He is worth $124bn (£89bn) according to Forbes, making him the fourth wealthiest person in the world. The couple have an estimated joint worth of $100bn.

In addition to Bill’s business interests, the couple also own several luxury properties including their main residence in Washington worth around $127m. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, established in 2000 to work in public health, education and climate change, is said to have net assets of over $43bn.

On their marriage in 1994 the Gateses did not sign a pre-nuptial agreement, which would have indicated at the outset how they would like their assets to be divided were they eventually to divorce. However, the divorce petition indicates that their property, business interests and assets should be divided “as set forth in our separation contract”. The advantage of this approach is that the couple are able to keep the details of their matrimonial finances out of the public eye and avoid costly litigation. It is likely that the couple’s lawyers will have been working on the agreement for some time before the petition was filed.

It is possible to enter into separation agreements under English law, and they are also an option when parties are cohabiting together rather than legally married. Like pre-nuptial agreements, entered into before a marriage, and post-nuptial agreements, entered into after a marriage has taken place but with the continuation of the marriage in mind, separation agreements are not automatically binding on divorce. However, such agreements carry decisive weight and are increasingly followed by the courts. Parties must exchange financial disclosure and have received specialist independent legal advice prior to entering into the agreement, and it must be clear that both parties entered into the agreement freely and with a full understanding of its content and consequences.

These types of agreements can therefore be extremely beneficial to have in place in order to attempt to avoid extensive litigation on divorce.