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Invoice payment well overdue? Here’s what to do next

Caroline Gibson

Caroline Gibson

PRO

So you submitted your invoice and waited patiently for it to be paid. But the payment deadline has passed and there’s no sign of your money. What next?

When do you start chasing an unpaid invoice?

It depends on how well you know the client and your relationship with them. But even with trusted clients, don’t leave it too long – here’s a cautionary tale from my own experience…

Many years ago, I worked with a client while he was MD at a design agency. He left to set up on his own and I worked with him again. I naively believed his promises to pay the seven invoices he owed me as soon as his other clients had coughed up. (Why wouldn’t I trust him, as I knew him well? Hmmmm.) What I should have known is that my contract was with him so it was his duty to pay, regardless of whether or not his clients had settled their invoices.

Calendar page with date circledIf the payment deadline has passed, send a follow up email within a few days. If you don’t get a response, send another. Ring the person in accounts too.

If you suspect the client may be in financial difficulties, then start thinking about what action you need to take – if they go into liquidation, you’ll lose out on any right to get your invoice paid.

Quote some Latin

A client may query your invoice, claiming the work was never used. This isn’t the point. Unlike journalists who are paid per word, freelance copywriters are paid for the time spent.

I was once given a great tip by a lawyer friend: reply saying work was done ‘quantum meruit’. This means you’re entitled to be paid for what you believe to be the reasonable value of your services.

Tell the client they owe you even more

Thanks to the Late Payments Act, you’re entitled to claim late payment interest and compensation for debt recovery costs, even if your invoice doesn’t state it. Pay On Time is a brilliant website to help you calculate late payment interest and get letter templates. You can also contact them for advice. Their website says:

Businesses are entitled to claim compensation when a debt remains unpaid after the date specified on the contract, or in the absence of a contract, 30 days after the delivery of the goods or service.

Write a letter stating that if the client doesn’t pay within x days (don’t give them too long – five days is fine after all this time), you’ll charge them for late payment interest and compensation. Also state that the interest will continue to accrue until the whole debt is repaid.

You could also state that you may start court proceedings if the invoice is not settled promptly. But this shouldn’t be an empty threat, so familiarise yourself with what would be involved, to check you would be happy taking this action. Court proceedings may result in a CCJ (County Court Judgement) against the company or individual, so the possibility of court action should definitely jolt them into action. Having a CCJ is like a great big indelible black mark on someone’s credit rating for six years.

Keep track of all correspondence

In case you do decide to take legal action, the court will want to see you’ve given the debtor every possible opportunity to repay – such as email reminders. Keep these as a record and send follow up letters by recorded delivery (keeping proof of postage).

Check your facts are right

Make sure you have the correct invoicing address.

When I first took a client to the small claims court, I thought he was a registered limited company. He wasn’t. He was self-employed and I should have given his name followed by the name of the company he was trading as. Although I successfully had my claim upheld, I couldn’t take further legal action so had to redo the claim again.

Check details for free at Companies House. The address a client is registered at isn’t necessarily the same as where their office is located.

You’ve issued several late payment warnings, but they’re still ignored

Taking legal action online yourself at Money Claim Online can be far cheaper than using a lawyer or debt collecting agency – plus you get back any of the costs incurred in doing so.

The system is set up to help small businesses and sole traders who are owed a fixed sum under £100,000. It takes about 30 minutes to fill out the small claims court form – you can call for help about filling in the form but not for advice – and you need to register an account with the UK Government Gateway first. You’ll have to state why money is owed within a certain word count so prepare this in advance. Keep to the facts – they’re not interested in emotional rants.

The client will then receive a court letter, which hopefully should send them into enough of a tizz to make them pay. If they don’t, after a period of time stated, the court will award in your favour and award a CCJ against your client. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get paid and you may need to consider further action.

Should you send in the heavies?

One enforcement option is to send in the bailiffs. However, they can’t force entry. If granted access (unlikely!), they’ll simply take items to sell on (computers, for instance) and you’ll get any proceeds. Personally, I’ve never considered it worth doing.

If you really can’t face the hassle of chasing up and taking court action, you could just appoint debt collectors. However, they have no legal powers and aren’t meant to intimidate. So you might end up paying them and still getting no further.

What are your other options?

If your client is self-employed, you could take out a charging order which is a claim for payment from the proceeds of their house should they ever sell it to pay off debts. Or you could ask for their bank account to be frozen, though you need to know all their account details.

Whatever you decide to do, it will involve time, effort and money.

It took me two years to get paid by the client mentioned at the start of this post. Read my previous blog post How to get paid on time, every time to discover the steps I now take to avoid this nightmare ever happening again


Remember that before taking any major decision regarding the management of your business or freelance career, you should take advice from qualified professionals such as accountants, lawyers or business advisors.

Comments

27th February 2016

Julian Abel

Hi fellow PCN members,
Does anyone have any advice on the following situation?
I’ve been working with a designer (who has a limited company) on a brochure for her client. I submitted the first draft several months ago now, and due to an office move and shifting priorities the client still has yet to provide feedback on my copy. I haven’t yet sent the invoice for 50% of the final balance as the designer has assured me she’s been chasing the client and the project will pick up again soon. This keeps dragging on and I’m quickly losing patience. From the designer’s perspective, her hands are tied and she can’t pay me until she gets paid herself. But my contract is with her company, not the client.
Any advice would be most appreciated.
Many thanks
Julian

PRO
28th February 2016

Caroline Gibson

Hi Julien
It’s a tricky one. As you say, your contract is with her. It’s therefore her responsibility to pay you – no matter what’s happening with the client. So ignore that argument of ‘she can’t pay me until she gets paid herself’. That’s totally untrue.

The problem is that the job’s not finished so, in theory, you can’t expect to be paid for incomplete work.

I don’t know what terms you agreed (and at least you’ve already got 50%), but the ones I ask clients to sign include two key points to cover me in this situation: ‘Payment is for my time incurred and is regardless of whether or not the work is used’ and ‘Should you for any reason fail to maintain communication with me for 21 days, I reserve the right to invoice for all work to date’.

My mantra is ‘If in doubt, bill it out’. In this instance, I suggest you send an invoice dated, say, a month from now with an email to say ample time has passed already and that you feel a month from now (or however long) is sufficient to get feedback and make any revisions before approval. Hopefully, setting this deadline might prompt action.

Before submitting this, check you have her correct address as a limited company on Companies House. If this website states a different one to the one she’s given (which may be an office/home address instead), make sure you use it instead. It’s very important to have this info correct in case you do need to start legal proceedings (as explained in my blog which you can read here or on my site at http://www.carolinegibson.co.uk/getting-clients-to-pay-on-time/).

If you still haven’t been paid after invoicing, then follow the steps I’ve set out – especially the section entitled ‘Quote some Latin’! And, I guess, in future, work out a contract direct with the client (your designer may be creaming off a tasty mark up on your fee).

Good luck! Let me know what happens.

Caroline

19th February 2017

Sophia

Thanks for your post, very helpful!

12th April 2017

P H

We have carried out work on a back end payment when work is completed from our leads. We started work in September 2016 knowing payments should and did start to arrive from our leads. We now know that we should have had payment up to mid March of around £20000. We have invested around £75000 in producing the leads & have proof that the Ltd company has received over 2500 leads which at least 25%+ will produce, using the lower average commision of £175 the estimaed commision will be over £110000. We estimate that at present the commissions due to date will be around £35000 but as we have stopped work producing leads for the company as we have received no commisions, they have cut of our communication were we could check the status of the leads so we are now in the dark. We invoiced them for an interim payment of £10000 & e-mailed for reasons for non payment but they admitted in writting that they had used our commission payments to pay their staff and couldn’t pay us. They said they would start to pay some small payments until they came up with a proposal – no payments or proposal has arrived. We are now considering which is the best avenue to go down.

8th September 2017

r.day

really good and to the point

12th October 2017

Tosha Vallis

Thanks you so much for this. I have found your advice invaluable when dealing with something similar. Honest people will always triumph in my opinion.

25th November 2017

Sarah

Hi there, any advise on the following would be greatly appreciated.

I’m self-employed and was hired to do a job. The invoice was sent but no response for 3 weeks. I’ve issued them with a 30 day warning, as per your advise on the article above. Now they are proposing to pay in very small weekly instalments, which will span over 8 weeeks. They are already a month overdue, and I really don’t want this to go on and on. But I don’t know what else to do. Should I just accept this situation or do I have to right to insist on a full payment within the 30 day period? Many thanks!!!

PRO
25th November 2017

Caroline Gibson

Hi Sarah

First of all, I’m a copywriter not a lawyer so can only offer advice based on my own experience and what I would do …

You don’t mention if your client signed your terms? And I don’t know how much they owe you … if it’s just a few hundred quid, you could spend a lot of time and effort chasing them and going to court.

In any case, it sounds like they can’t afford to cough up right now – which may be because they’re giving priority to other, bigger suppliers or need to pay gas/electricity bills first.

If you accept the 8 week instalment suggestion, they may go out of business before paying you in full. So show them you mean business. As they’re already overdue, I would start charging late payment interest – which applies from the date the invoice became due and applies to the whole amount until it’s paid off. If this doesn’t spur them into action, you can consider taking them to the small claims court via Money Claim Online

If you do so, make sure you have their correct business address. If they’re a limited company, use the one given on Companies House. If self employed, use their home address (and add Trading As + their trading name and address).

I’ve never taken someone to the small claims court who has already offered to pay in instalments. I know the small claims court likes to see that an attempted agreement has been discussed (and you may need to offer mediation), so am not sure how that affects things.

I suggest you check out the discussion forums on the Pay on Time site; you can also ask them your question.

Good luck – and do update everyone on what happened.

20th December 2017

Sam

Hi Caroline,

Thanks for a wonderful article!

Would you say it’s worth pursuing for a small amount?

I had a new client who wanted some flyer copy done. Small job – just an hours work. I delivered and asked the client to confirm any edits. I had no reply and after two weeks I issued an invoice.

The client went on to claim he had only requested an ‘example’ of my work and refuses to pay. I have email trails to confirm the agreed price and delivery so I feel I have a solid case but I’m wondering if I’m being overly emotional in pursuing a relatively small amount further. I just find it frustrating that my time should go unpaid on the basis that this person feels he can be so difficult that I will simply go away.

I may have been lucky but I haven’t come across this in the 3 years I have been working freelance and honestly it’s upset me more than I would like to admit!

I’d love your input.

PRO
21st December 2017

Caroline Gibson

Hi Sam

Realistically speaking, you could spend a lot of time working out the late payment interest and chasing this up – which just isn’t worthwhile for an hour’s work. There’d be no point taking the client to the small claims court as the cost of doing so may be more than the money you’re chasing.

My advice would be to send a final email – or phone him – stating the email trails you have. Say that you have taken professional advice and, unless, you receive the money by tomorrow, you will charge late payment interest and take legal action which may result in a county court judgement against the client.

He’ll probably know you’re calling his bluff, but it may be worth a final try.

18th February 2018

hit

Hi there, I need advice on my issue.

I’m freelancer from India and my client is from UK. My client has taken contract to design marketing kit for some football club. I completed all the designing work and delivered all files successfully to him.
After file delivery he stopped replying my email. I send him several reminder for payment (which is $500) in last two months but he didn’t replied any of my email.

In past 2 years I worked on several small projects for him and he never delayed my payment. But this time when amount was a little big (atleast for me) he is not replying.

Do you have any advice for me, we also didn’t sign any project contract as he was my regular client.

Do you think I should contact directly to that football club??? I know this sounds bad but I have very little choices.

PRO
18th February 2018

Caroline Gibson

I’m sorry to hear that, especially as you haven’t experienced problems with the client in the past. Unfortunately all advice on this site is based on UK freelancers working with UK clients so I don’t know what jurisdiction you would have in India.

Personally, I suggest your best action is to call your client and ask for payment to be made immediately. Whether you tell him you’re considering calling his client direct – or you actually do so – is entirely up to you, but it certainly won’t guarantee payment as your ‘contract’ is with your client and not with theirs.

Always aim to agree a down-payment on any project – with milestone payments for significant sums. And get an agreement to each project fee in writing.

Good luck!

12th March 2018

Jack

Hi Caroline,

Fellow writer here. I’ve completed work on a creative writing project for a video games company. They owe me £7000 and are 6 weeks overdue. I’ve had a few emails saying I’ll be paid at the end of that week, but it never materialises. I know they have financial problems. My concern is they could go bust in the next few months and then I’m in financial trouble as I need the £7000 to live! I didn’t put a late payments clause in the contract, can it still be applied retrospectively?

Would it be worth opening a legal claim now, and is the Money Claim Online system worth a go? Do you know if they charge a fee?

Thanks for any help you can give.

Best
Jack

10th April 2018

Copywrite4u

I’ve had problems with non paying customers before, expecting my work for free then just hoping I will go away. I always use Federal Management’s Debt Recovery services as they take care of any problems from cradle to grave. Much less stressful than having to deal with it myself and certainly less time consuming when I know they are deliberately avoiding me.

What do you think?

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