8 Steps to Dealing with a Freelance Client that Won’t Pay

When a freelance client doesn’t pay you on time it can be very difficult. This is something I have experienced personally.

If you’re dealing with a freelance client who doesn’t pay, and are not sure what the next step is, I’m here to help.

You’ll learn what to do when you’re struggling with a client who doesn’t pay on time.

How To Deal with a Freelance Client that Won’t Pay

Here are steps to finally get paid what you’re owed. Plus, a few extra tips you can use to get paid what you deserve.

  1. Establish Rules from the Beginning
  2. Determine the Cause of Non-Payment
  3. Exhaust all Avenues
  4. Send them a Warning E-mail
  5. Mail out an Official Letter
  6. Hire a Lawyer
  7. Show the Client You Mean Business
  8. Consider Small Claims Court

1. Establish Rules from the Beginning

After being a full-time freelance writer for many years, I understand the importance of saving up a cushion of money for when times are lean, or when a client doesn’t pay you.

I was prepared for this and it, thankfully, didn’t put me in a financial bind. But what if it did?

What if every client you worked with decided to pay late, or not pay you at all?

We’d all be out of work, and clients would treat us however they wanted. This is why it’s vital you teach clients how to treat you!

You’re the boss, remember? Don’t let them mistreat you, not pay for your work, or get away with being unethical about a business deal.

Even if it takes more time than it’s worth (financially speaking) it’s often more important to establish professional boundaries — for yourself and your clients.

While you’re in the process of establishing boundaries, don’t do any more work for this client until you get paid.

If you don’t pay the electricity bill, it gets turned off, right? The same rules apply!

2. Determine the Cause of Non-Payment

I get it, it’s easy to mix up the numbers, lose papers, or miscommunicate important information. Not everyone is BSing you when they say “the check’s in the mail“.

Sometimes checks really do get lost, or the bank numbers were input incorrectly, or maybe they just totally forgot. Figure out if the non-payment reason is a legit issue or just a misunderstanding/tech problem.

Most companies use a payment processing service like WePay or Gusto, so perhaps the issue is with the payment processor and not the client themselves.

Your job is to remain calm and determine the cause of the non-payment, then work to resolve it.

3. Exhaust all Avenues

Have you done everything you can to reach the people in charge or the accounting department?

Try calling their office. Ask friends or co-workers who you know worked with this client and ask them about their payment experience. Do a search online and find the client’s Twitter handle and reach out to the social team.

Do whatever you can to ensure that you’ve done your research and have exhausted all avenues of getting their attention.

Seriously, some companies are so disorganized that they never communicate with each other and have no idea what’s really going on.

Once, I asked a friend if she received payment from the same client since she recommended me to them and we worked on a campaign together. She said she already received full payment with no issues.

I was relieved to know it wasn’t because they didn’t want to pay, they just had technical problems and miscommunication within their company. So I just followed up with the freelance client and got to the bottom of the issue.

4. Send them a Warning Email

If you truly feel like you’ve done everything you can (outside of legal force) send your non-payment client a warning email.

This will not only show them that you mean business, but it can serve as written proof that you gave them ample time to rectify the situation.

Specifically list out all the methods you used to contact them, the exact dates, their specific promise to you to pay when you started the project, any other relevant information from your contract, and notice that there will be further legal action if this is not taken care of.

Funny Thing: Within 3 hours of sending an email like this I received a response from my contact (imagine that!) and within 4 days the money was in my bank account. Go figure!

Sometimes clients just need to be reminded that they can’t push freelancers around. 

5. Mail a Letter of Demand

Sometimes clients just need to know you’re serious about getting paid.

What you can do is send out a letter of demand. A letter of demand will act as an official record of your demand for payment – make sure to mail it with the return receipt requested.

With it officially laying out legal implications, receiving a letter of demand can sometimes be just enough to get your client to pay up.

If this method falls through, the next step would be to contact a lawyer.

6. Hire a Lawyer to Help

Hopefully, by now you’ve taken the first few steps and your client is in the process of paying your invoice. In that case, you’re lucky! If not, its time to talk to a lawyer.

A lawyer can come at a heft fee, but if you are missing payment from a big side gig, it will be worth it.

  • Have a Lawyer Write a Letter: Have a lawyer send a letter stating that you plan to pursue this matter further and that you’re applying an X% fee to the invoice each month. (Hopefully, a late-payment fee is in the freelance contract, but if not you should add it.)
  • Mail Letter with Return Receipt: Mail this letter via snail mail with the return receipt requested notifying them that they are [number] days overdue for payment and as per the contract you are owed [amount due]. If you’re not paid within [a certain amount of time] you will pursue further legal action. (Make sure you keep the receipt for when they sign for the letter!)

7. Show the Client You Mean Business

Still not getting anywhere with a client who doesn’t want to pay? Follow through with your threats.

Not only does it feel good to vent some frustration, but it’s your duty to look out for other freelancers so they don’t get burned working with this client.

For me, this means alerting my entire community via Twitter, the Facebook group, and this blog. Call the client or company out by name, and warn other freelancers not to work with them or use their services.

You’re not doing this out of spite, and you should still be respectable about your words, but make it known that clients can’t treat business owners this way.

8. Consider Small Claims Court

I understand that there comes a time when you can either give up on getting paid or pursue the matter via small claims court.

If the money is a small amount, it may not be worth the time you spend to pursue it — you could be spending your time and energy working with clients who actually want to pay you.

However, be sure to weigh out the principal of the matter as well as how much you’ll get paid, and any fees you’ll pay the court or a lawyer. Sometimes it’s worth teaching your client (and yourself) how the business side of freelancing is to be conducted.

The specifics of whether you can represent yourself, how much money you’ll be able to recover, and how long the lawsuit may take, all depend on your location.

Research the small claims court policies in your local area and check out the official government website for your state.

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