Whether one spouse hides money from the other during a portion of their marriage (and the Wall Street Journal reported this week in Veronica Dagher’s article, “Hiding Money From Your Spouse Has Gotten a Lot Harder,” that 58% of spouses say they do), the serious attempt to track it down will almost always come in the time leading up to a divorce.

Divorces can be long and painful journeys, and despite the marvel of the internet, so can asset searches – especially when the other side knows you’ll be lookingGettyImages_109764060.jpg.

Clicking your way to assets becomes a little easier when you get to the stage of electronic discovery, as the article claims. Proper (legal) access to a computer, smartphone or Facebook account can work wonders. But the idea that a spouse or her accountant can dispense with paper records, do a little Googling and come up with major assets a lot of the time is just plain wrong.

Sometimes, you can get lucky. An accountant uncovered real estate owned by a the other side by using Google, according to the article, and the web also yielded information that the husband had sold his supposedly valueless company for millions.

We’ve written before about the limits of Google in our “Fact Finding Test for Lawyers,” where we point out that if you Google yourself, you will probably find less than one percent of the information that you know about yourself. Why should your spouse’s secrets tumble onto the Google results screen when yours and those of most people you know will not?

Google is also deficient as a main search tool because “good” results for Google may not be good results for you. Google is a business, not a non-profit catalogue of the world’s information. If an obscure financial asset held by a brand new limited liability company controlled by your husband is like gold for you, Google may not get excited enough to tell you about it before page 10 or page 100 because nobody’s linked to it yet and it contains no lucrative terms to sell in Adwords. We went into this and other Google matters in “Google is Not a Substitute for Thinking.”

The sad truth for people hunting for assets is that it’s often hard work that involves looking through paper. Of course, as the article mentions, there are all kinds of ways to tap into computers, phone lines and bank accounts. The trouble is, a lot of that kind of thing is illegal. Go into court with illegally-obtained evidence, and you often come out a loser.

The main reason electronic searches won’t be enough to uncover assets? Those assets are recorded only on paper. At best, in most of the more than 3,000 counties in this country, you can find abstracts of deeds, mortgages, court documents and security agreements on line, but to read them you need to retrieve paper in physical form.

What kind of thing is on paper that’s not on the web? For starters:

  • Co-defendants. Your husband is sued in Pennsylvania, but not on the electronic abstract are the names of his co-defendants. One of those could be his LLC through which he owns property you don’t know about.
  • Collateral. When you borrow money in a securitized loan, the collateral gets recorded in writing. Sometimes you can see these UCC Article 9 security agreements on line, and sometimes you can’t.
  • Other adversaries who could help you. Looking at other people who have tangled with your spouse can help with information gathering because those people may know more about his business than you do.  

Finally, one critical tool is missing from the article on the electronic tool kit investigators now carry: it saves tremendous time, lets you conduct research from your office the way computers do, and even allows for lightning-quick follow-up. It’s called the telephone.

We don’t recommend using it until you’ve done all your research (lest you tip off your spouse that you’re getting close and give him the chance to move the assets). However, used properly, the phone can be the asset-hunter’s best friend