Continental Resources, CEO Harold Hamm. Source: Flickr user David Shankbone

Most Americans probably haven't heard of Continental Resources (NYSE:CLR) or its founder, Harold Hamm. This is despite the fact that Hamm controls more oil wealth than any man in America. After founding Continental Resources in 1967, Hamm's company was one of the first to figure out how to profitably get oil out of North Dakota's Bakken shale. Because of that, he has made a lot of money over the years. His net worth is estimated to be $17 billion, most of which is tied up in shares of the company he founded, as he owns 67.9% of the company's outstanding shares. However, now that he and his wife are getting a divorce, she wants her cut, which could make their divorce the costliest ever and vault her wealth past Oprah's. 

How he made his billions
Harold Hamm's story is one firmly rooted in the power of the American dream. His parents were cotton sharecroppers, which was a system where landowners rented their land to the poor in return for a share of the crops they were able to produce. Hamm was the 13th and youngest of the family and only has a high school education.

Yet, by 2012, he was ranked by Forbes magazine as the 30th richest person in America and the 76th richest in the world. That year, he also served as presidential candidate Mitt Romney's energy advisor. The reason for his success is simple. He followed J. Paul Getty's famous formula for success: Rise early, work hard, strike oil.

Hamm made his first oil discovery in 1971 in a wildcat well drilled in Oklahoma. However, his big break came in 1995, when Continental Resources helped to discover the Cedar Hills Field in North Dakota, which is the seventh largest onshore field ever discovered in the continental U.S. The company built upon that success a few short years later in 2004, when it drilled the first commercially successful horizontal well using hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota's Bakken Shale. Its success in the Bakken enabled Continental Resources to list its shares on the New York Stock Exchange in 2007. Those shares are up nearly 1,000% since going public, which has created the vast wealth that Harold Hamm holds today.

Photo credit: Flickr user Lindsey G

The pricey divorce
Harold Hamm met his second wife, Sue Ann, two decades after he first founded Continental Resources. However, with no prenuptial agreement, Hamm's soon-to-be ex-wife is seeking her fair share of the marital assets. Given the price appreciation of Continental Resources' stock, those assets are worth upwards of $17 billion. To put that number into perspective, Sue Ann would just need to be awarded $3 billion of the assets in order to top Oprah and vault herself onto the list of the top 20 wealthiest women in America.

Before she passes Oprah, the court still needs to decide how much she should get. This is where it gets tricky: If the court determines that the wealth was created by Mr. Hamm's hard work, then it would be considered a marital asset and could be split evenly between the two. However, in an epic battle of he-said, she-said, Hamm is saying that the wealth is not the result of him rising early and working hard to strike oil, but instead was obtained by pure luck, under which case he would be entitled to full control of the assets.

Why it matters to investors
Because Harold Hamm owns so much of Continental Resources' stock, his divorce matters to investors in the company. If Mrs. Hamm were to get half his shares, she'd control more than a third of the company, as would he. The concern is that she could then sell her stock on the open market, which could put pressure on the stock price, sending it lower. She could also offer her shares to one of Continental Resources' rivals, leaving the company exposed to a takeover attempt, as Mr. Hamm would no longer hold enough stock to block a rival from buying control of the company.

Needless to say, this is a drama investors never expected when they purchased Continental Resources stock. This makes the intrigue surrounding the divorce all that more meaningful, because investors could be the ones most affected by the outcome if the court decides Mrs. Hamm should receive half of Mr. Hamm's shares. 

Matt DiLallo has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.