Bill and Melinda Gates have announced they are to divorce after 27 years of marriage, saying they “no longer believe we can grow together as a couple”.

The Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist and his wife have built up a combined $124bn (£89bn) fortune, making them among the five richest couples in the world.

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

The couple, who jointly run the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a huge funder of global health and disease prevention initiatives, including the fight against coronavirus, said they would continue to run the foundation together.

“We continue to share a belief in that mission and 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. We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life,” they said.

The pair “will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues and set the organization’s overall direction,” the Gates Foundation said in a statement.

The couple have three children, Jennifer, 25, Rory, 21, and Phoebe, 18.

Jennifer Gates, writing on Instagram on Monday, said it had “been a challenging stretch of time for our whole family”.

“Thank you for understanding our desire for privacy while we navigate the next phase of our lives,” she wrote.

The surprise announcement comes less than two weeks after the pair appeared virtually at an event for healthcare workers fighting the pandemic.

Melinda, 56, has in the past said their marriage has been “incredibly hard”, saying that Bill, 65, regularly works 16-hour days and can find it hard to make time for the family.

“Believe me, I can remember some days that were so incredibly hard in our marriage where you thought, ‘Can I do this?’” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times in 2019 to mark their 25th anniversary.

Bill, who co-founded Microsoft in 1975, was already a billionaire when the pair got married in 1994. He met Melinda in 1987, when she joined the company. He was 31.

Melinda said Bill spent weeks debating whether or not they should marry, and even made a list of pros and cons for marriage on a whiteboard.

“When he was having trouble making the decision about getting married, he was incredibly clear that it was not about me, it was about, ‘Can I get the balance right between work and family life?’” she said.

Bill is the world’s fourth-richest person with his estimated $124bn (£90bn) fortune, but he would have been even more vastly wealthy if he had not committed to giving away at least half of his fortune before he dies.

Since 1994, he has donated at least $40bn to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds IT education in the US and healthcare and poverty initiatives around the globe – including funding large-scale projects tackling HIV and malaria. Their foundation has more than $51bn in assets, according to a tax filing.

In 2010 the couple and Warren Buffett created the Giving Pledge, a promise to give at least half of their wealth to charity, and called on other billionaires to join them. More than 170 of the world’s richest people, including Mark Zuckerberg, Mike Bloomberg and George Lucas, have so far signed up.

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