How Much Does a Private Investigator Cost?

How Much Does a Private Investigator Cost

If you suspect your spouse might be cheating or hiding money, one of the steps you can take to uncover those misdeeds is to hire a private investigator.

But, how much does a private investigator cost, and is it really worth it?

We’ll cover all that and more. Let’s jump in.

Costs and Different Ways Private Investigators Charge for Services

Ways Private Investigators Charge for Services

Asking how much a private investigator charges is a lot like asking, “How much does a car cost?”

The short answer is, it depends.

You need to consider the type of casework you need a PI for, how long it might take, the potential threat to life and health, location, complexity, if the work will lead to other possible needs, and several other variables.

Some private investigators are self-employed or work for detective agencies, and others are on staff at financial and business organizations that work strictly for their employers.

Services are rendered either on an hourly basis, a flat fee, hourly, or on a retainer.

Hourly rate

Most investigators charge by the hour, with a range between $50 and $250 per hour. The majority of investigators charge on the low end of this scale.

The hourly rate may move downward if you buy a large number of hours. Some investigators will have as little as a two-hour minimum up to an eight-hour minimum.

Part of the per hour rate will be determined by what services you want, the time of year, and how much risk there might be to an investigator’s life and health. Working during evening hours or on weekends may also come at a premium.

In regions where expenses are greater, expect to pay a premium as well. Large cities often mean higher rents for offices, more expensive permit and licensing costs, and other added overhead.

If you hire a PI for international work, your hourly costs could be significantly higher as well, perhaps in excess of $250 per hour.


Some private investigators may work off of a retainer. Essentially, you will pay an initial sum of money that can range from $500 to $10,000 or more. The private investigator will draw from this amount for the number of hours spent on the job, travel and related services expenses, and other incurred costs.

If there is money left in the retainer when the work is done, some PIs will refund the amount, but others will keep the remaining retainer. That’s a good question to ask as part of your due diligence.

When the retainer has been used up, if there is still casework to be done, you’ll need to reach some kind of new agreement that will extend payment in some form.

Flat fee

Investigators usually charge a flat fee in a simple case where the work is limited and clearly defined. This might include things like doing a records search, background checks, checking a vehicle or home for surveillance devices, checking a vehicle license plate or driving record, and other similar activities.

In general…

No matter which fee structure is used, there may also be administrative expenses that a PI will charge. This can include things like mailing or faxing documents, mileage for case-related driving (from $0.20 to $0.70 a mile), lodging and travel expenses, fees for taking photos, or fees for court appearances.

When the case is over, private investigators generally provide a report to the client summarizing services rendered and the outcome of their work. Keep in mind, sometimes, an investigator will not turn up any wrongdoing. The final report will also contain an itemized billing of services provided.

Tips for Reducing the Cost of a Private Investigator

Reducing the Cost

Divorce is costly enough without running up unnecessary expenses related to hiring a private investigator.

To reduce your costs in this area, consider the following:

  • Limit the scope of work. If you suspect a spouse is cheating, hire the investigator for that task only.
  • Get it in writing. Be sure to get an agreement that spells out fees and sets an agreed-upon budget upfront.
  • Provide as many details as you can at the start. The more information you arm an investigator with, the quicker they can do their work.
  • Ask about any upcharges. For example, a PI may charge extra to appear as a witness providing testimony in court.
  • Do your homework. Hiring an investigator is an important task. Make sure you review several possible candidates and pick the one who has a proven track record of efficiency and results.

You may be surprised at the wide variety of services a private investigator offers.  Here’s a closer look at how you can put a PI to work for you.

What Services Does a Private Investigator Provide?


Some divorces are simple.

And some are not.

If you’re going through an uncontested divorce, you may not even need to hire a lawyer to represent you. But if you’re in a high conflict divorce, with a lot of mistrust and acrimony, chances are you’re going to need more than just a lawyer to assist you.

It’s not uncommon to retain a pension evaluator, mediator, forensic accountant, or any number of specialists to help you make your best case. Depending on your needs and your situation, you may also want to retain a Private Investigator (PI).

You may already have preconceived ideas about what a PI does through media stereotypes, but in real life, investigators often do the hard work of tracking down important information that might otherwise fly under the radar.

Some of the services a PI provides will include:

Confirming adultery suspicions

In many states where a no-fault divorce is the only option, meaning all you need to do is cite irreconcilable differences, proving adultery may have no bearing on a divorce. Some states do allow you to use adultery as a fault-based reason.

You can also use it as one of the factors in getting more favorable terms with a distribution of assets, alimony, in custody disputes to prove a lack of character, or in other aspects of your divorce. The impact adultery has can range from none to significant depending on where you live.

At other times, even when there is no impact, one spouse will simply want to know if the other spouse is cheating on them. This may serve no other purpose than to inspire them to action and be less cooperative when the facts are known. Also, if a spouse is undecided about getting a divorce, this can be the confirming action that puts a divorce in motion.

The other value a PI has in an adultery situation is that they can be called upon to provide evidence that can be used in court. This may include testifying as a witness to the adultery.

Read More: 37 ½ (Not So) Obvious Signs Your Wife is Cheating on You

Uncovering hidden assets

One of the more common issues that spouses deal with when a distribution of assets happens is that a spouse may go to great lengths to hide property that the other spouse may have an interest in. During the discovery process, a spouse may suspect that the other one is not being fully forthcoming.

If this is the case, you can hire a private investigator that can be used to find those assets, or work in concert with other asset professionals to discover the financial truths that have not been revealed. PIs often use public records or other means to hold a spouse to account.

Spouses can hide assets by paying off phony loans to friends and family members who are really holding the funds for the spouse until after the divorce. A spouse may sell a property at a discount the same way, reclaiming it after the divorce hearing. Others may move funds to offshore accounts or personal property to hidden storage facilities

Often, one spouse has handled most of the financial decisions and left the other in the dark about these matters throughout the marriage. A private investigator can also determine when one spouse is attempting to disrupt the divorce proceedings by trying to spend down the marital estate.

Judges take a dim view with spouses who act this way, and it can have a profound impact on settlements by penalizing the less than honest spouse.

Alimony information

When a spouse knows he or she will likely end up paying alimony, one of the tricks that is often employed is an attempt to may earnings seem lower than they actually are. Wages and income are used as the basis for alimony, and the lower this amount is, the less out of pocket a spouse will have to pay.

Bonuses or other employment benefits may be delayed or hidden until after a divorce or a spouse may take a temporary pay cut or reduce their working hours to lower their purported earnings.

When a spouse owns a business, there are several steps that can be taken to reduce the value of the business, such as taking on added debts or delaying large amounts of collectibles until after a divorce is finalized.

On the other hand, a spouse requesting alimony may also be hiding their various forms of support. Living with a romantic interest can impact income, and this can easily be uncovered by surveillance or analyzing various financial documents.

Child custody and support

Similar to alimony, parents are sometimes dishonest when it comes to financial matters concerning their children. Getting a clear and accurate accounting of both parents’ financial situation is critical to developing the right level of child support.

The added layer with children is that a private investigator can also uncover neglectful or abusive behaviors that are not in the best interests of the children. Providing evidence to the court will impact custody and visitation issues, leading to supervised visitation or a complete revocation of privileges in some cases.

Read More:  The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children (and How to Help Them Cope)

Finding a missing spouse

You can hold a spouse accountable to their legal obligations in a divorce if you can’t find them. A private investigator will have tools at their disposal to find a missing spouse so that you can pursue whatever legal actions are needed to ensure your rights are protected.

Value as a third party

One of the most important services a private investigator can provide is that of a confirming third party. Often, a divorce will devolve into a “he said, she said” argument where there is no proof on either side.

A PI is much less emotionally attached to a case than either spouse and will conduct a fact-based investigation that will either confirm or deny a client’s suspicions.

This has a much better chance of standing up in court and helping a spouse get a favorable ruling. The only caveat is that the information obtained by the PI must have been obtained legally.

For example, a PI can’t enter private property without permission or access records that otherwise would need a subpoena. A private investigator may be able to determine the location of bank accounts or other records, but the owner’s permission or a court order often is required to access specific information.

How to Find a Good Private Investigator

Find a Good Private Investigator

So, now you may be asking, “How do I find a good private investigator near me?”

Here are some things you should do.

First, if you’re working with an attorney, they will often employ investigators regularly. This PI will come prescreened, and the attorney will know best how to direct their efforts. Lawyers may recommend using private investigators in cases where there’s a sense that discovery is not going well or whether hiring a private investigator is even justified, based on the facts of your case.

Unfortunately, not all private investigators are who and what they claim to be. So, if you’re hiring a PI on your own, consider these actions:

Check their license. Almost all states require a private investigator to be licensed. The only states that don’t are Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Licensing is voluntary in Colorado. Check with your local municipality to make sure it’s valid and also use license information to see if any complaints have been filed against the PI.

How long have they been a PI? Some retired law enforcement become private investigators after the fact, so take that into consideration as part of an overall length of time they’ve been doing investigations. Ask about how much work they have done similar to what you want and the results of that work.

Get a referral. If not from your attorney, then ask other trusted people in your life. Keep in mind you’ll be sharing personal information, so you’ll need to conduct a background check of your own to find somebody reliable. Confirm the referral through Angie’s List or other local consumer review organizations. Make sure to get references from each PI that you contact about handling your case.

Does the PI have insurance? Most will be insured for at least two or three million dollars. It’s not a strict necessity for all of their work, but it does add another layer that protects you has the hiring entity if something goes wrong during the course of their work.

Discuss confidentiality. The PI will be dealing with sensitive information and you simply need to confirm that the person you hire will be discreet and respectful when information is shared with you.

Pay attention to personality and communication style. Use your intuition to determine the level of professionalism a PI displays. How do they communicate and do they make you feel uncomfortable in any way? Do you feel pressured around them or are there any ethical boundaries they are going to cross during their work?

Discuss possible outcomes. A good PI will have some sense of what you’re after and outline a plan of attack that should lead to a feasible outcome. You should have some indication of what possible results to expect.

Ask about a contract or written agreement. After a free initial consultation, a professional PI should be able to outline costs and services to you. If you move forward, make sure all details and expectations are included in any contract.

Different investigators have different specialties. It’s possible for a PI to be highly competent but not appropriate for your needs. Pay attention to specific experience as part of your due diligence.

Hire a pro, not a friend. You want somebody completely detached from the situation. It’s easier for a friend to get caught in an investigation, or to have their personal preferences lead to biased behaviors.

Is it Worth it to Hire a Private Investigator?

Worth it to Hire a Private Investigator

If you are working with an attorney, follow their experienced lead. If they think it’s a good idea, chances are it’s a good idea.

Only you know for sure if you need or want to have your suspicions confirmed or denied. You’ll also want to have an independent third party in your corner when it comes time to move forward on the critical parts of your divorce.

Some divorces are for high stakes, and the last thing you want to do is to be caught short.

You must be prepared for whatever the PI’s findings will be. Sometimes the news will be bad. Sometimes it will be even worse than you imagined. And at other times, your suspicions will turn out to be unfounded. Deciding how much peace of mind that is worth to you is important.

While you may want to hire a PI for emotional reasons, it’s important to check with an attorney to find out if it would truly be helpful from a legal perspective. With the advent of no-fault divorces as a common divorce process throughout the United States, this needs to be an important factor to weigh before moving forward.

Looking for more information on the role of a private investigator in a divorce?  Check out some of our other popular articles.

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