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pay up! flickr: Andres Rueda

Freelancing is tough enough without getting stiffed by clients, but it happens to everyone. Sometimes the mistake is really just that—a mistake—and a couple calls to Accounts Payable is all that’s needed to rectify the situation.

Sometimes the issue is more dire.

We spoke with American Society of Journalists and Authors director Alexandra Owens about your options.


First, you need to figure out what’s going on. Is the company not paying you because they’re just jerks, or are they in serious financial trouble? If the latter, Owens says, you don’t have much recourse, but you should “put them on notice that you’re a creditor, just like their landlord is a creditor,” she says. “The sooner you get your notice in to them the better off you’ll be.” In bankruptcy, small creditors are usually last in line to receive any funds, though, so if you sense the company is in dire straits, maybe discontinue working for them or start lining up other clients.

On the bright side, if the company’s just being tight-fisted, there are a few steps you can take. Owens says the first step would be to send a letter via certified mail stating your claim. ASJA assists its members with the letter-writing process and, if the client’s particularly stubborn, “we will send them a letter that says, ‘We know you value your reputation, and we hope you won’t risk it by letting this news be shared with 1300 members of ASJA.’ Any sort of reputable business that’s hiring freelance writers at decent rates is going to care about that,” Owens says. Not a member? You could send a copy to a lawyer or a writer’s association such as ASJA, Owens suggests, making sure the client knows you’ve sent the second copy. “Let it be known that you’re enlisting help and notifying a third party.”

If it’s a large amount of money you’re owed, there’s always small claims court. (In New York City, where most of you are probably reading this, you can sue for up to $5000 for a filing fee of $20.) If they don’t show up, you win! Of course, if the company’s going to ignore you suing them they’ll probably ignore a judge telling them to pay you.

Owens doesn’t recommend engaging a lawyer for unpaid freelance invoices except as a last resort. “That would [cost] in the hundreds, just to send a letter, I’d guess,” she told us.

So, to sum:
Don’t wait. If you’re uncomfortable with the amount you’re owed, don’t work more for the same client. (We’ve heard the trick of saying you’re still continuing work but won’t deliver it until the invoices have been paid.) From there, start with a firm letter, proceed to small claims court, and as a last resort, for huge amounts of money owed, consider a lawyer.

AvantGuild members get $50 off ASJA’s initiation fee! Learn more here.