Who Gets the L.L.C.? Inside a Silicon Valley Billionaire’s Divorce.
A couple are heading to court to decide who is entitled to a fortune, started in the earliest days of Google, that includes valuable California real estate and stock holdings.,
Who Gets the L.L.C.? Inside a Silicon Valley Billionaire’s Divorce.
A couple are heading to court to decide who is entitled to a fortune, started in the earliest days of Google, that includes valuable California real estate and stock holdings.
Allison Huynh, at home in Palo Alto, Calif., is entangled in a divorce battle with Scott Hassan, an early Google investor.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
PALO ALTO, Calif. — In 2014, Scott Hassan, known by some as the third Google founder, sent Allison Huynh, his wife of 13 years, a text message that their marriage was over and that he was moving out of their home.
Nearly seven years later, the pair are still locked in litigation over how to divide an estate with tech investments and prime California properties estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
A trial expected to start Monday will offer an unusual, public peek into the details of a big-money Silicon Valley divorce. They include Mr. Hassan’s failed attempt to persuade Ms. Huynh to sign a so-called postnuptial agreement and his admission that he started a website in her name to publicize embarrassing information from her past.
Technology billionaires have typically divorced quietly behind closed doors. Some of them more than a few times. While the sometimes unpleasant details of the ends of their marriages have often found their ways into the news, it is rare that they are willing to trade blows in a public courtroom and expose the complex web of their personal finances.
When the Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, who started the genetic testing company 23andMe, split after eight years of marriage in 2015, they hired a private judge to hash out the details. The recent divorces of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos were also handled in private.
But Ms. Huynh and Mr. Hassan are headed to court in Santa Clara County, Calif., bereft of the secrecy that money can buy. Exactly why that has happened is a matter of dispute. She said Mr. Hassan had refused to take their case to private judging. He said a private judge wouldn’t necessarily keep proceedings private and would require them to pay for a retired judge or neutral attorney.
Ms. Huynh has accused Mr. Hassan of engaging in “divorce terrorism,” using legal tactics to drag out the proceedings. In an interview, Ms. Huynh, 46, said Mr. Hassan had told her that he planned to “bury her” and make sure that she “gets nothing.”
Mr. Hassan, 51, denied saying that in written answers to questions from The New York Times. “At the end of a relationship and through a divorce this lengthy, things are never easy, and no one is at their best,” he wrote.
Mr. Hassan is not a household name, certainly not like Mr. Brin or Larry Page, the men credited with starting Google. But without Mr. Hassan’s contribution, Google may have been nothing more than a computer science project at Stanford University.
He was a research assistant at Stanford’s computer science department, which made him the resident programmer for many doctorate students, when he met Mr. Page, a Ph.D. candidate. He rewrote the code for a slow web crawler that Mr. Page had created to understand the relationship between links on different websites. He also worked with Mr. Brin to build a search engine, which eventually became Google.
When Mr. Page and Mr. Brin founded Google in 1998, Mr. Hassan bought 160,000 shares for $800. When Google went public in 2004, the shares were worth more than $200 million. The shares, now in Google’s parent company, Alphabet, would be valued at more than $13 billion today.
While Mr. Hassan never worked for Google, he was one of the founders of a company called eGroups, which was sold to Yahoo in 2000 for $432 million in stock. He also started two robotics firms.
Mr. Hassan met Ms. Huynh through mutual friends at Stanford in 2000. She had emigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the war and attended Stanford on scholarship. Ms. Huynh said she had dropped out a few years before meeting Mr. Hassan to pursue opportunities during the dot-com boom. She was working as a consultant and web developer, building websites for clients such as Wells Fargo.
In 2001, five days before Christmas, they got married at the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas. There was no discussion of a prenuptial agreement, and they barely discussed finances, both of them said.
Ms. Huynh said she had supported the family financially in the early years. She said Mr. Hassan had $60,000 in debt, so she often paid for food, travel and entertainment — including their engagement party, which Mr. Page and Mr. Brin attended.
Mr. Hassan said that was not true, and that by the time they were married, he was financially secure and debt free. In addition to the Google stock, which was still a speculative investment at the time, he owned a house in San Francisco as well as $8 million in stock of Yahoo — which had lost much of its value after the sale of his company — and Amazon, he said.
Ms. Huynh said she had put her career on hold to raise their children and assist Mr. Hassan with the business. The issue of money came up four years into their marriage, around the time of their oldest daughter’s second birthday.
Less than a year after Google went public, Mr. Hassan proposed a deal in exchange for waiving any future claims to marital assets. Mr. Hassan offered Ms. Huynh $20 million in Google stock — less than 10 percent of his shares — and half of three Bay Area real estate properties: houses in Palo Alto and San Francisco, and a commercial building in Menlo Park. She felt blindsided and hurt. She refused.
Mr. Hassan said he had proposed the agreement to share some of his newfound wealth.
Later that year, they moved into a bigger Palo Alto home in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. Ms. Huynh lives in the 7,500-square-foot home, valued at $20 million on Redfin, with the children.
Still, Ms. Huynh said there was little indication that Mr. Hassan was unhappy. But in 2014, while she was on a business trip for MyDream, a virtual reality company she started in 2011, she received a text message from Mr. Hassan informing her that the marriage was over and that he was moving out, she said.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I kept saying to him, you must be kidding.”
Mr. Hassan in 2016, two years after he informed Ms. Huynh that their marriage was over.Credit…J. Countess/Getty Images
Mr. Hassan said it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to her. He said they had a big fight a few days earlier, when she falsely accused him of infidelity in front of their children. She said she had never accused him of cheating, but questioned his whereabouts during long absences from the house.
After a few attempts at counseling, they separated in January 2015.
Since then, they have tangled in the courts. Mr. Hassan’s ownership of his Alphabet shares is not in question in the divorce. They are fighting over a smaller, hard-to-define slice of their estate.
Ms. Huynh sued in 2019 to halt the sale of one of Mr. Hassan’s businesses, a robotics firm called Suitable Technologies, to a Danish company for $400,000. As a shareholder, she accused Mr. Hassan of selling Suitable for below market value to gain a personal tax benefit. The sale did not go through, and Suitable filed for bankruptcy.
Mr. Hassan said that despite lending Suitable $90 million of his money, the company was still losing more than $1 million a month. He tried to solicit offers from Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, but none of them were interested. He said he had accepted the only offer he received.
The couple officially dissolved their marriage in May 2020 and agreed to joint custody of their three teenage children.
Next week’s trial is part of a drawn-out legal process to divide the estate and resolve other financial matters including spousal and child support. California is one of nine states where assets acquired during marriage are divided evenly in a divorce.
In 2006, Mr. Hassan formed a limited liability company called Greenheart Investments. In a pretrial filing, lawyers for Ms. Huynh said Greenheart had invested in more than 15 technology businesses and more than 30 real estate properties, including a 195-unit apartment complex in Menlo Park, less than a mile from Facebook’s offices. Greenheart was valued at more than $1 billion in 2015, the filing said.
Ms. Huynh said Mr. Hassan owns more than 50 limited liability companies to hold his tech investments and real estate properties. Mr. Hassan said there were more like 20 for his real estate holdings as well as two “umbrella” L.L.C.s for his other investments.
Ms. Huynh said Greenheart should be considered community property because Mr. Hassan repeatedly muddied the line between his assets and their shared property. But Mr. Hassan’s lawyers said in a legal brief that they would argue that the company should be considered his separate property because it had been started with his premarital assets.
As the trial has approached, the feud has taken a harsh turn. This month, Ms. Huynh found a website — allisonhuynh.com — with her photo, links to her social media accounts and news reports about her. It also included a legal filing about her from 20 years ago, which was no longer available online and included salacious details about a past relationship.
The website concealed the identity of the person behind it. But Ms. Huynh eventually discovered that someone named Scott Wendell had uploaded the legal filings. Wendell is Mr. Hassan’s middle name.
Mr. Hassan admitted that he had made the site in “a moment of frustration” because Ms. Huynh and her lawyers were telling “one-sided stories” to the press. “I realize that this was not the right way to go about this, and it only ended up making our dispute more public and tense,” he wrote in an email to The Times. Mr. Hassan said he had taken down the site.
Ms. Huynh, who finished her degree at Stanford last year, said the website could have hurt her reputation at a time when she was trying to launch new businesses, including a mobile game, the Adoraboos, which aims to teach children about blockchains and cryptocurrencies.
Mr. Hassan said that while they didn’t agree on what was fair, he did not believe that his ex-wife should get nothing.
“I have no doubt we will land on a resolution that makes her a woman with generational wealth,” Mr. Hassan wrote.