Billionaire Breakups

Silvio Berlusconi's upcoming divorce illuminates stakes of billionaire breakups

May 21, 2009— -- The stakes are almost always high when a marriage ends, but divorce can take on epic proportions when vast sums, political careers and public companies are involved.

Las Vegas has been abuzz with rumors since the March news that the city's "king and queen," Stephen and Elaine Wynn, arguably Sin City's most powerful couple, were splitting. American billionaire Wynn controls a 21% stake in publicly traded Wynn Resorts but lists his soon-to-be ex-wife as a beneficiary.

"This is going to be like two businesses splitting apart," said divorce attorney Raoul Felder, whose roster of high-profile clients includes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "This may effectively end some of their businesses, because you can't have two owners who are fighting with each other. It could change the landscape of Las Vegas."

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In a sign that the couple might be gearing up for a more amicable split, Elaine was unanimously nominated for reelection to Wynn Resorts' board. Still, the board might want to brace itself for some potentially awkward meetings.

One of the nastiest fights underway now involves T. Mellon & Sons' banking heir Richard Scaife and his second wife, Margaret, who apparently hired a private investigator and allegedly caught her husband cheating with an ex-prostitute. After Margaret took Scaife's favorite dog, Beauregard, Scaife placed a sign on his front lawn reading, "Wife and dog missing. Reward for dog." Margaret reportedly broke into his home to steal some valuables, including a $1,000 set of asparagus tongs.

Behind the scenes, divorces involving the ultra wealthy are often complicated and expensive--though, luckily, paying legal bills isn't a problem. In cases where a large fortune is at stake and most of the assets are illiquid, dozens of subcontractors are likely to get involved in the divorce, said Michelle Smith, a financial planner and regional director for the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts.

Aside from the traditional financial planners and attorneys, the potential divorce "team" for a billionaire might include a business valuation accountant, an expert to assess investments and private equity, an art appraiser, a jewelry appraiser, a private investigator and an expert to conduct forensic work, such as tracing the cash flow in and out of the couple's account.

So how do billionaires' marriages usually end? The outcomes are quite varied. Timothy Blixseth lost his billionaire status last year and dropped out of the ranks of the Forbes 400 richest Americans after he and his wife Edra divorced and divided their assets, including ownership of private ski resort Yellowstone Club. Now he's trying to unload his private Caribbean island for $75 million, while she is selling Château de Farcheville, her medieval castle outside Paris.

Others, like Russian Roman Abramovich, hold on to the bulk of their fortunes. Irina, his former wife, stood by him for 16 years as he built his oil and aluminum fortune. Although he was rumored to have had an affair, Irina apparently got just 1.6% of his $18.7 billion fortune at the time.

Whatever the outcome, divorce doesn't deter the ultra rich from remarrying. While only 52 are currently divorced, one in five of the world's 793 billionaires has gone through a divorce at some point. They just get smarter about prenuptial agreements.

Sumner Redstone's second wife, Paula Fortunato, a schoolteacher 40 years his junior, signed a prenup reportedly giving her $1 million per year of marriage, which meant she would have gotten only $5 million in October when the pair divorced after five years. That's good news for the mogul, especially since he almost fell off our list of the world's billionaires in March, due in part to the stock market declines of CBS and Viacom.

As for Berlusconi and Lario, some experts say she should put up with the wandering eye, at least until she can count on better economic times and higher estate valuations. Already she is seeking a piece of a shrinking fortune: Berlusconi's net worth dropped by 30% in the past year, from $9.4 billion to $6.5 billion in March.

"I'm sure she'll do OK, but it won't be the same as being married to a billionaire who is one of the most powerful people in Europe," says Felder. But at least she won't have to worry about his wandering eye.