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How to get paid on-time (and what to do if you’re not)

It’s every freelancer’s worst nightmare: You’ve worked hard to bring your A-game on this client project and, come billing time…the payment doesn’t come. What do you do next?

We talked to Jesse Strauss, a Domino, lawyer and founder of Indepayment (a service to help freelancers reclaim unpaid client debts), to see what to do in this scenario. His recommendation? Create a to-do list for managing the money you’re owed. Here’s his system for getting paid on time:

1. Make sure your invoice clearly states when it is due. If you have no agreement, it’s standard to make the invoice “Net 30,” which means 30 days after it is sent (not received, sent). If you have an agreement (and you should always have an agreement!), then it should say when the bills are due in the agreement. For ongoing work where there is no agreement, payment should be “on receipt,” so you can expect to be paid immediately.

2. If the invoice isn’t paid upon the due date (whether that’s Net 30 or upon receipt), make a call to the client the next day, reminding them to pay the invoice. Leave a message or talk to someone. During the call, set a date for payment. Figure out who is responsible for getting the invoice paid. Do not make your payment contingent on someone else paying or some other outside factor. If the client won’t commit or gives you excuses, be polite but firm.

3. Immediately after the call, write a short email confirming the date that was set for payment (“you will remit payment by _______”), or recapping the dispute (“you claim that you can’t make payment because X”). If they levy a charge at you, deny it. Do not concede any mistakes in the project in writing. Your email should be SHORT. It should conclude by saying “if you disagree with anything in this email, please tell me.”

4. About 5 days before the payment is due, call again to remind the client that payment is due and confirm that the payment is being processed. Don’t worry about being a nuisance.

5. If payment isn’t received by the date set or the client makes it clear they won’t pay, then send a formal demand letter by U.S. mail, preferably certified. There are payment demand letters online — here’s an example.

6. If no payment is forthcoming after the demand letter is sent, then you need to bring out the big guns. Companies like Indepayment are one option — we have professionals who try to collect, as well as debt collectors and lawyers we work with if the client is being exceptionally difficult. Indepayment does no cost lawsuits, so you won’t have to pay any costs of the lawsuit.

If you don’t want to use a service like Indepayment, another option is to find a lawyer or engage a debt collector directly. The lawyers who do this type of work are called “commercial collection” lawyers. Jump on Google and search for one in your area. You can also bring a claim in the small claims court yourself. Indepayment has a guide to doing that here.

Jesse Strauss is a lawyer based in New York City. He runs Indepayment, a service to help freelancers reclaim outstanding debts from their clients.

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