There’s a cliché in media about divorce. One partner doesn’t trust that the other is honest, whether it’s about their relationships or finances. To figure out what their spouse is actually doing with their money and time, they hire a private investigator to tail their partner. In movies, this usually leads to a major revelation about cheating or gambling. But does this ever happen in real life?
Yes, private investigators can be helpful in real divorces, though the outcomes are usually not as dramatic. However, real PIs need to follow much stricter laws than any movie detective. Here’s how private investigators work, what they can and can’t do, and how they may be able to help you during your divorce.
What Is a Private Investigator?
A private investigator is a private individual who helps people and businesses collect information about personal and legal problems. They’re useful for verifying claims, collecting evidence, conducting research, and performing surveillance. If you need someone to help you find evidence in your divorce, a PI can be a valuable ally.
It’s important to note that private investigators are not associated with law enforcement. While PIs may have contacts with local police and may even be former police officers, they cannot arrest people or enforce laws. If you hire a PI, you are working with an information gatherer, not someone with enforcement capabilities. If the PI discovers any broken laws, you will still need to reach out to the relevant agency to take legal action.
Laws for Private Investigators in California
California’s requirements for PIs are stricter than many other states. First, a PI must have a degree in a relevant field like law, political science, or criminal justice. For full licensure, the investigator must also have at least two years of experience in investigation and pass the state’s written exam.
Once a PI is licensed, they can begin to collect information for their clients. However, they must follow state laws, meaning that California PIs may not:
- Record calls without permission: California’s privacy laws prevent anyone from recording a call or confidential conversation without getting consent from the other person. A PI can’t record calls or perform wiretaps.
- Access private bank and financial information: While a PI can check public databases and ask people for information, they cannot access personal financial details without permission. Banks will not give these details, and PIs do not have the authority to force them to provide them.
- Track people with GPS: It’s illegal to track someone via GPS without their consent in California. A PI cannot plant a tracker on someone to learn their location, but they can physically follow them to know where they are.
- Acquire private medical records: HIPAA prevents medical professionals from providing personal medical records to anyone other than the patient or people the patient has authorized.
- Trespass on private property: Private investigators are not permitted to trespass on someone’s personal property. A PI may watch a property from public spaces or explore private property with permission. Still, if they trespass, they are subject to California’s anti-trespassing laws.
When a PI Can Help Your Divorce
It’s legal to hire a PI in California as long as you choose someone who’s fully licensed and follows all laws. However, it’s best to make sure that a PI will actually be useful for your divorce or custody case before you hire them.
Historically, the best use of a PI during a divorce actually took place before the separation was filed. Before no-fault divorces became possible around the country, one partner needed to have committed a “fault” for the divorce to be permitted. This could be physical abuse, neglect, or cheating. The last fault is where private investigators came in. Someone who wanted a divorce would hire a PI to follow their spouse and gather evidence that they were cheating.
Today, of course, no-fault divorce is the norm in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Proving your spouse is cheating is no longer necessary to get the separation you want. Still, a PI can be helpful in certain circumstances. Here are the four cases where PIs are most useful.
- Supporting prenuptial agreement claims: While there’s no longer a need for fault to get a divorce, your spouse’s behavior can impact a split with a prenuptial agreement. For example, many prenuptial contracts will include clauses that adjust how child custody or spousal support will be awarded if one partner cheats. If you have a prenuptial agreement that states you don’t need to pay alimony if your partner is unfaithful, a private investigator can help you gather evidence of their infidelity.
- Verifying support information: In many separations, one partner must pay spousal support to the other. The amount of support to be paid is typically determined by the paying partner’s income, so unethical people may try to make their earnings look lower. A PI can confirm how much they are actually working and earning to ensure an appropriate alimony award.
- Locating assets: During the division of assets, your spouse may try to hide funds or property to avoid having to split it fairly. A PI can track down these assets to make sure they’re included in your marital property to be divided.
- Monitoring child custody conditions: Finally, if you’re sharing custody of your kids, you want to make sure they’re safe when they’re with their other parent. If you’re concerned about the conditions in which your children are living, you can hire a PI to monitor them.
Get Help Proving Your Claims
Working with a private investigator may be the right choice if your spouse seems to be hiding things during your divorce. The investigator can help you find missing assets, prove that your spouse earns more or less than they claim, and make sure your children live in safe conditions.
Before you hire a PI, you should talk to a qualified attorney about whether it will help your case. Your divorce lawyer can help you determine whether the information you’ll collect will make a difference either way. Get in touch today to schedule your consultation before you make a decision about contacting a PI.