Is It Illegal to Open My Ex-Spouse’s Mail?

While at one time you and your spouse probably considered opening each other’s mail just another part of joining your lives in marriage, once the divorce process begins and after the final decree you may be wondering if mail with your spouse’s name but delivered to your address is fair game. Sadly, like many other things shared in a marriage, the privilege of opening each other’s mail without repercussions ends after the divorce. In fact, it’s wise to stop opening a spouse’s mail the moment you separate or even sooner—once you and your spouse begin having marital problems and the possibility of separation and divorce arises.

The Consequences for Opening Mail Not Addressed to You Could Be Serious

The question of opening someone else’s mail is addressed by Section 1708 of the United States Code, Title 18. According to this code, opening, destroying, or hiding mail addressed to another person is a federal crime. This law applies even when the mail comes to an address used solely by one spouse after a separation or divorce. Even if married spouses granted each other permission to open each other’s mail during the marriage, the process of separating and filing for divorce is presumed to revoke that permission even if the spouses don’t explicitly withdraw permission in so many words. Legally, courts find only three exceptions to this law:

  • If the item is addressed to both parties
  • If one ex-spouse explicitly grants authorization for the other to open a specific piece of mail 
  • If one ex-spouse grants permission for the other to open all mail addressed to them

If an ex is at all contentious, you should be wary of opening their mail even if they grant permission, since they could use it against you later unless it’s a legally written and signed authorization. If you and your ex-spouse hold any bitterness, have unresolved legal issues, or may wish to hurt, punish, or make things difficult for each other, by opening the other’s mail you give that ex a viable reason to press criminal charges against you.

Penalties for Opening an Ex’s Mail in California

Intentionally opening, destroying, or hiding an ex-spouse’s mail is a serious offense if they wish to pursue charges or civil litigation. You could face charges of mail theft or obstruction of correspondence. You may be dismayed to learn that this could result in fines of up to $250,000 and a 5-year sentence in federal prison. While the USPO may choose not to prosecute a time-consuming case unless it’s a serious offense, such as hiding or destroying important documents or opening a spouse’s mail in order to engage in forms of identity theft, it’s important to understand the possible consequences should the federal government decide to prosecute.

Even if the United States Post Office declines to prosecute the case, you could still face civil penalties should the ex-spouse decide to pursue the case in court. In this case, you could face monetary damages. This type of action could also negatively impact your divorce agreement.

Instead of opening, hiding, or destroying mail that’s delivered to you but only bears your ex-spouse’s name, you should either deliver it unopened to the ex and ask him/her to file a change of address, or return it to the mail with a written statement on the envelope informing the postal service that the addressee no longer resides at the address.

If you’ve been charged with a federal mail crime or you’ve been named in a civil lawsuit for interfering with correspondence, it’s important to contact an attorney right away.