Chief Executive Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, are divorcing after 25 years of marriage, a period during which Mr. Bezos amassed a personal fortune while building the world’s most valuable company.
The divorce could have implications for the ownership structure of Amazon, where Mr. Bezos is the largest shareholder with a 16.3% stake, according to the company’s latest proxy filed in April 2018.
Much will depend on whether a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement outlining the terms of a possible split exists, according to lawyers who handle divorces for wealthy individuals.
Mr. Bezos is the world’s wealthiest man, with a net worth of about $137 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Ms. Bezos, who was instrumental in helping to launch Amazon, could be entitled to half the couple’s wealth depending on where they divorce, attorneys said. If Ms. Bezos ends up with a chunk of Mr. Bezos’s stake, she could influence shareholder votes on resolutions and press for changes at the company.
No matter what, Mr. Bezos is expected to remain one of the company’s largest holders. The next biggest holders are Vanguard Group and BlackRock Group Inc., each with a little more than 5% of the company.
In a message Wednesday on Mr. Bezos’s Twitter account, the couple said that after a trial separation, they had chosen to proceed with the divorce.
“If we had known we would separate after 25 years, we would do it all again,” they said. “We’ve had such a great life together as a married couple, and we also see wonderful futures ahead, as parents, friends, partners in ventures and projects, and as individuals pursuing ventures and adventures.”
Mr. Bezos “remains focused on and engaged in all aspects of Amazon,” a company spokesman said, declining to comment further. Ms. Bezos couldn’t be reached for comment. In addition to Amazon, Mr. Bezos also founded the rocket company Blue Origin LLC and owns the Washington Post, as well as homes around the country.
Some previous high-profile divorces involving executives have had big ramifications for corporate entities.
Elaine Wynn divorced
founder Steve Wynn in 2010, and the two shortly after wrangled over control of her shares. She ultimately ended up being the casino company’s largest shareholder, pressing to restructure its board and improve corporate governance. Real-estate magnate Frank McCourt’s divorce from his wife earlier this decade eventually led to the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.
Stacy Phillips, a matrimonial lawyer with Blank Rome LLP in Los Angeles, said, referring to the Bezoses, “If they’re smart, they’ll do this privately and quietly, and go about their lives.”
If there is no nuptial agreement, Ms. Bezos could be in line for half of the couple’s wealth if they divorce in a so-called community-property state such as Washington, where Amazon is based, or California, where they own property, lawyers said.
How much of the divorce proceedings Mr. Bezos is obliged to share with Amazon’s board and shareholders depends largely on their material impact on the company and his ability to run it, corporate governance experts said. “Who keeps the dog? That’s probably not relevant,” said Charles Whitehead, professor of law at Cornell University. “What happens to share ownership? That may be closer to the line.”
Even on that point, Mr. Bezos’s fiduciary obligations to Amazon’s board aren’t clear-cut, Mr. Whitehead said. The Amazon CEO would have to flag any plans to split up his stake ahead of normal regulatory disclosures to the extent such knowledge could affect the board’s decision-making, he said.
Ms. Bezos, a novelist, wrote “The Testing of Luther Albright: A Novel” and “Traps.” The couple has four teenage children, three boys and one girl. She met Mr. Bezos in the early 1990s when the two worked in finance at investment firm D.E. Shaw. He was one of the first to interview her when she applied there for a job. They married in 1993.
The following year, they drove to Seattle, where Mr. Bezos decided to start his online bookstore venture. He settled on the area because of its pool of high-tech professionals and proximity to one of the world’s biggest book warehouses. While Ms. Bezos drove, Mr. Bezos typed up his business plan on a laptop computer. She was a key member of the Amazon team when it started operations in 1995.
Mr. Bezos spoke in September about the importance of having time at home with his family in the morning before heading into work. He doesn’t schedule meetings before 10 a.m.
In September, the couple announced they were forming the “Day One Fund”—named after Amazon’s startup-mode mantra—with an initial endowment of $2 billion to fund early childhood education and programs that work to help the homeless. Their joint efforts also included a foray into politics, when the couple contributed $10 million to a super PAC that helps military veterans get elected to Congress.
The two have made high-profile public appearances over the years. Mr. Bezos was honorary chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Gala in 2012 in New York, which the couple attended. Early last year, they were photographed at the Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, D.C., and at the Vanity Fair’s Oscars party.
The couple owns homes across the country, including a $12.9 million residence in Beverly Hills, Calif. and a $23 million former museum in Washington, D.C.
—Micah Maidenberg and Vanessa Fuhrmans contributed to this article.