Melinda Gates began divorce talks in 2019, coinciding with Bill Gates' ties to Jeffrey Epstein becoming public

Melinda Gates met with divorce lawyers well over a year before her highly-publicised separation from Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates was announced, according to local media

The billionaire couple announced their divorce on May 3 (local time) after 27 years of marriage and a 34-year relationship.

According to several sources and documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Melinda, the former general manager of Microsoft, consulted with specialist attorneys in October 2019 - more than a year before she would file for divorce from the software mogul.

As per the documents, the 56-year-old philanthropist had been working with lawyers at a number of firms to put an end to her marriage, which was officiated without a prenuptial agreement on January 1, 1994.

The former power couple has not publicly disclosed the matters behind their separation, although speculation has arisen regarding the role Gates' dealings with disgraced financier and convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, may have played in the deterioration of their union. 

Melinda had expressed concerns about her husband's purported friendship with Epstein for several years - reportedly as far back as 2013 - a former employee of the Gates' charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal

According to a report by the Daily Beast, the Gates had met with Epstein at his Manhattan mansion in September 2013. Citing people familiar with the matter, the outlet said Melinda later told her friends she was uncomfortable in Epstein's company and wanted nothing more to do with him. Several people close to the couple reportedly said she was "furious" about their contact. However, Gates continued to maintain his ties to the wealthy financier, who died in jail in August 2019 awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

In October 2019, Melinda had discussions with divorce lawyers, according to the documents - coinciding with the publication of a report by the New York Times revealing Gates had met with Epstein on numerous occasions.

Bill and Melinda Gates
According to documents reviewed by the WSJ, Melinda Gates had discussions with divorce laywers in October 2019 - around the time her husband's ties to Jeffrey Epstein were publicised. Photo credit: File

That year, a spokeswoman for Gates confirmed the mogul had met with Epstein multiple times to discuss philanthropic endeavours. Speaking on behalf of the billionaire, the spokeswoman said Gates "regrets ever meeting with Epstein" and recognises it was "an error in judgement".

The documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal show the former couple had been negotiating their divorce throughout the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and reportedly were in discussions to divide their multi-billion-dollar fortune by March 2020.

The divorce filing on May 3 shows the Gates have agreed to a separation contract to divide their assets, worth an estimated US$130 billion.

Last week, Gates' investment firm, Cascade Investment LLC, transferred US$2.4 billion in shares to his estranged wife, the same day she filed for divorce.

The former couple announced their divorce after 27 years of marriage in a joint statement issued via Twitter.  

“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” said the statement.

"We… will continue our work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives."

In divorce documents obtained by local media, Melinda said the marriage was "irretrievably broken"

The Gates have three children. As of May 2021, Bill Gates net worth is sitting at around US$124-$129 billion, with Forbes listing him as the fourth richest person in the world.