Using a Private Investigator for Child Custody, Divorce, and Other Disputes

The discovery process -- when the plaintiff and defendant share documents and other evidence related to the case -- is an important step in most legal disputes, including family law matters, such as divorce and child custody. Family law attorneys often use private investigators to gather this evidence, such as public records pertaining to a noncustodial parent's hidden income or photos showing an extramarital affair.

Using a private investigator for child custody, divorce, or other family-related legal disputes is quite common. However, P.I.s must follow certain procedures to ensure the information they gather is accurate and legally admissible.

The Role of a Private Investigator: The Basics

Family law disputes involving such matters as child custody and child support typically involve "he said, she said" arguments that require fact-finding. While attorneys are trained to identify the most relevant type of information in discovery, they often turn the fact-finding task over to licensed P.I.s. While investigators don't have policing powers, they play a similar role in gathering evidence.

The role of a private investigator varies by the type of dispute and the needs of the case, but P.I.s generally perform the following basic tasks:

  • Collection of Evidence - The P.I.'s main task is to collect evidence, whether it's looking through documents for the "smoking gun," digging for civil judgments or criminal records, talking to people, or utilizing other means such as a stakeout.
  • Surveillance - Working within the confines of the law, a P.I. often watches an individual to see where they go, how they interact with their children (if it's a custody case, for example), whether they're living a secret life, etc.
  • Background Checks - Checking a person's professional history, social contacts, credit, criminal history, and other such information typically is done via the internet but also may involve phone calls and interviews.

Licensing requirements vary by state. Those seeking licensure in California , for example, require some legal training (and/or a relevant degree), real-life investigative experience (i.e. as an apprentice to a licensed P.I.), completion of a background check, and passage of an examination in some instances.

Investigators can't, however, enter private property without permission or access records that otherwise would need a subpoena. Also, while they may be able to determine the location of bank accounts or other records, the owner's permission or a court order often is required to access specific information.

It's generally not a good idea to hire an investigator yourself. If the investigator mishandles evidence or is unlicensed, what they end up producing may not stand up in court. Allowing the attorney to hire the P.I. works best. Attorneys typically forge relationships with trusted P.I.s to ensure compliance with licensing requirements and proper techniques for handling evidence.

Using a Private Investigator for Divorce

All states now allow for no-fault divorce, but some states still allow "fault" grounds for divorce, such as infidelity or spousal abuse. Illinois law, for instance, lists adultery; cruelty or violence; and drug or alcohol addiction (among others) as grounds for a "fault" divorce. But to prove such grounds -- which may provide an advantage for the filing party -- they must have evidence.

Through surveillance of the party, monitoring social media activity, accessing records of purchases (i.e. undisclosed hotel expenditures), and other methods, P.I.s often are able to prove infidelity or at least activities or expenditures suggesting an affair. A P.I. also may use strategies to "catch" parties in the act and force a confession, such as sending the target party photographs depicting them in a romantic embrace with a third party.

A private investigator also can help find assets (and liabilities, such as debt) relevant when determining property division, child support, and spousal support. It's not uncommon for parties to attempt to hide assets once they believe divorce is imminent, particularly when finances are managed primarily by only one party.

A P.I. can often find hidden assets by searching through various databases, such as Secretary of State or Securities and Exchange filings (for undisclosed securities or business assets). Certain documents may reveal questionable transactions suggesting that a party off-loaded property for free or at a discount with the intention of reclaiming it later. Also, there may be evidence of requesting a delay in payment of a bonus until after a divorce is finalized.

Using a Private Investigator for Child Custody and Visitation

Child custody determinations are generally made with the child's own best interests in mind, regardless of what the parents would prefer. In some cases, using a private investigator for child custody disputes can reveal whether a parent is in fact capable of providing a stable home environment for the child. In other cases, there may be concerns about child abuse or drug use by the noncustodial parent (which would be relevant for visitation determinations).

Investigators have a variety of tools and methods at their disposal to help with custody cases, including the gathering of witness statements, background checks, and surveillance. After custody is awarded, P.I.s can provide evidence of custody or visitation agreement violations.

Get Legal Assistance With Your Divorce or Custody Dispute

Using a private investigator for child custody, divorce, or other family law related matters is often a good idea, and it's best to go through a legal professional. Get started with your case today by contacting an experienced family law attorney near you.

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