How One Corporate Wife Set a New Standard for HNW Divorce

One the founding benefactors of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Lorna Jorgenson Wendt, has a fascinating backstory, and I’m thankful to Sondra Shaw-Hardy for bringing her to my attention. This weekend, I did some reading and learned how Lorna was able to shake up the entire nation in the late 1990’s by fighting for her right to an equal share of the assets in divorcing her corporate CEO husband.

Lorna Jorgenson Wendt
Lorna Jorgenson Wendt set a new standard for divorce equality, and was featured on the cover of Fortune Magazine in 1998. (Image credit: Fortune)

Lorna Jorgenson Wendt was married to Gary Wendt for 32 years. The two had been high school sweethearts in the Midwest, went to college together at the University of Wisconsin, and then married and moved to Cambridge, MA, where Lorna put Gary through business school for his MBA from Harvard. At the time, in a ceremony conducted by a Harvard Dean, Lorna and other Harvard student wives were awarded Ph.T certificates — honorary awards for “Put Hubby Through” college.

When her husband went on to become a corporate leader at GE Capital, eventually rising to the role of the company’s CEO, Lorna Wendt featured heavily in his career. She traveled with her husband to over 40 countries to woo clients. She attended and hosted numerous events, parties and gatherings and was always “on” for her job as corporate wife.

Then, after 32 years of marriage, as Lorna put it, she was fired from her position as CEO of the Wendt family. In December of 1996, Gary informed her that he wanted a divorce, but hoped she’d still put on their spectacular Christmas party that year. They still had the party, and they also started their divorce.

Lorna Fought for Equality In Marriage and Divorce

Initially, Lorna Wendt was granted $8 million in the divorce, less than one tenth of their total assets as a couple. She went back to court, seeking 50% of all forward-going and current hard assets. The judge issued an almost 500 page ruling in the divorce, and Lorna Wendt was granted 50% of all stocks and other hard assets. This was much more than most wives got in divorce. However, she was not granted 50% of all assets going forward, resulting in a total divorce settlement of $20 million of the $100 million total assets in question. She appealed, asking for 35%, but the appeal was denied.

Lorna went on to found the Institute for Marriage Equality, a think-tank and educational organization that was hosted by the University of Wisconsin, her alma mater. She also went on to lecture widely about equality in both marriage and divorce, and was a strong advocate for pre-nuptial agreements as a way for women to protect themselves going forward in marriage.

There is much more to Lorna Jorgenson Wendt’s story (start here for some good history) but the point here is that everyone has a role to play in the long fight on gender equality. Wendt gave her voice and her time and energy, as well as some of her financial resources, to help educate the public about how women are hurt by unfair divorces. By calling attention to the significant downsizing of women’s assets that happens in most divorces, and by investing her own resources in setting a legal precedent for women to be awarded more assets in divorce, she significantly changed the world.

The details of the final award for Lorna Jorgenson Wendt were helpfully enumerated by the Boston Globe in 1998. Lorna Wendt’s major awards in her divorce from Gary Wendt were:

1. Stamford, Conn., home with $1 million mortgage paid: about $1.5 million

2. Key Largo, Fla., home: about $950,000

3. Alimony: $252,000

4. 50 percent of cash and securities: about $8 million

5. Cash payment: $2 million

6. 50 percent of G.E. Qualified Pension Plan: about $500,000

7. 28 percent of G.E. Long Term Performance Award: about $2 million

8. Payments related to ownership of G.E. stock options: $2.8 million

9. 50 percent of Wendt Family Foundation assets: about $450,000

10. Macy’s credit card with 45 percent lifetime discount. (Gary Wendt is a former director of the chain.)

Lorna’s Dividends Pay Dividends for All Women

Lorna’s insistence that she receive dividends, stock options, and even things like lifetime credit card discounts, show how carefully and comprehensively she worked to protect herself legally. Her diligence set a new legal precedent and garnered tons of media attention at the time.

You can believe that much of corporate America took note of what happened to Gary Wendt in his divorce from Lorna — that he lost ground in his attempt to usurp 90% of the family’s assets. It was undoubtedly a hot topic of discussion at the time, and should continue to be discussed today, especially when billionaires are amassing such huge piles of assets.

The experts that presented at the Wendt divorce went on to appear at the divorce proceedings of many other high net worth couples. Lorna’s work also lives on through the University of Wisconsin’s MORE program, advocating and researching on money, relationships, and equality.

Related:

It’s All About the Divorce Gap: Ending Isolation for Divorcing Women

At $37 Billion, Did MacKenzie Bezos Get a Fair Divorce?

Bill and Melinda Gates File for Divorce, Agree to Divide Assets

Divorce Gap Alert: Why Melinda French Gates Deserves 50%

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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