Can't collect from a Client

Not sure if I am posting this question in the right place but I need some advice…

I recently did my first freelance gig for an electrical engineer (name and address

legit)…unfortunately I made a verbal agreement and didnt think to provide a written contract

(stupid decision, I know). He posted his ad on craigslist with vague specs and his rate budget. I

knew and he knew that final deliverables exceded what his initial request was, as stated in emails

with all additional specs he requested to be added to the product. I did two weeks of work for him,

exchanged many emails regarding specs for a product I was to design for him as well as received

positive comments on my progress. Upon completion and fully up to his specs he decided to stop

contacting me. I sent him an executive report and snapshot of his product, an invoice by email and regular mail and still no contact back. He never

contacted me to cease my services either. Its been over a month that he owes me about $2800. I

want to bring him to small claims court and have it settled that way. Hes clearly ignoring me and I

am losing hope with it. Being that the contract was verbal, nothing signed, Im afraid if I go to

small claims court I will be slammed with a counter-suit or possibly “waste” the money through

court expenses. How can I get paid for my services using just our verbal contract, emails and texts

exchanged, through court or not? Any advice is greatly appreciated


Small claims court will not guarantee that this flake will pay you. It only gives you the legal right to pursue other means of remuneration. And there’s no point in suing someone if they do not have the funds to pay you.

Without written documentation, you have nothing to stand on, it’s your word against his. The only “court expenses” that you would be paying are a filing fee (typically less than $50), another $25-50 for having the court papers “served” (unless you do it yourself (not advisable), and parking fees. Professional assistance, aka an attorney, are not permitted in small claims courts.

Moral of the story … meet the client before starting a project, get a deposit (sometimes referred to as a “retainer”), and work to written documentation.

Chalk the cost up the cost of experience.

  1. a client on craigslist is probably a good sign of bad things to come.
  2. a signed contract is your responsibility. and changes following should be authorized in writing and additional deposit collected if required.
  3. a deposit is required.
  4. don’t deliver final files without final payment.


I have no idea about american laws, but over here your conversation by mail could have some value in indicating the existence of an oral contract. Before seing a lawyer about this first thing would be to check if he is any good for what he ows you so far. I wouldn’t throw the towel,yet.


I’d unfortunately have to echo what Richard said.

I wound up in this boat a while ago, and even with a well outlined contract and master service agreement, wound up going through months of headaches, lawyers - following by being counter-sued for a BS claim, and in the end winding up spending more in legal fees then I finally got out of the client.

You can try the small claims approach, but ultimately you’ll need to cover all the expenses and time associated with it, and it sounds like you’re likely to waste more time than you’ll benefit from.

If the work was good, stick it in your portfolio, and call it a day. Then start looking into contracts and your state laws and if you plan on doing this in the future make sure you have the proper paperwork in place to protect you. It’s an unpleasant experience but one that is better to learn when it’s only a few weeks of work, not a few months.

One last thing you might want to try is telling him that you own the IP if not paid in full. Let him know you will be posting his final design on the internet- that might change his mind from a business decision (if his is at all professional, though maybe not since he was looking for a designer on craigslist…).


[ Deleted ]

Sorry to see your grief.

1, Don’t fret too much YET, although I hope your invoice specified ‘…full payment in 30 days…1.5% accrued interest on unpaid balances…’ that does not mean a client will pay in 30 days. More likely they might pay in 60 or 90 days, but at the 30 day mark I advise sending a duplicate invoice forgoing the interest (but listing it) and continue each 30 days until payment is made, second notice onward should include the interest. and like Richard offered, include a simple statement on the invoice reminding the client that you own all unpaid IP and are free to post such work as your own in any venue you wish. FOR NEXT TIME: if you invoice a client on an ongoing project and don’t receive payment on time, halt the project until payment is made.

  1. Develop a contract (ours is integrated into our proposal template and requires a signature and sometimes a deposit to begin work). Don’t be afraid to make the contract page extremely detailed.

  2. If its a small time client (entrepreneur, etc) and someone you don’t know, have a face to face meeting if possible before taking on their project (we buy those lunches).

  3. Deposits should be sized to cover your expenses, allowing you to only eat profit at the back end if it goes sour.

It’s only happened once to our boutique consultancy. It was 2008 and it was a sizable loss because they were a Chinese client (too far away to pay them a visit with Rudy and a whiffle ball bat). We let our guard down even though they were a multiple project client that had history with me - so each of the three ongoing projects’ last submitted invoices was lost. The good news is that they have not grown and are feeling the hurt of China’s slowdown. And by the way, I still send an invoice once a year reminding them what schmucks they are.

+1 :slight_smile:


I used to be a contracted freelancer for an engineering firm, they kept “forgetting” to pay me until I brought up the magical phrase breach of contract and refused to do any more work until I got some sort of payment. Have you emailed him directly saying something along the lines of “I agreed to do this work for $X/hour and you have not paid me for my work, if I don’t receive payment within X number of days I will be pursuing legal action.”? I had to resort to doing that with my client and suddenly a few days later there was a check in my mailbox.

I don’t know why so many people think they can just jerk around freelancers like this.

Threatening legal action can also have the opposite effect of really pissing someone off and having them go apesh*t crazy on you. I had a client who owed me only a couple hundred dollars go so far as to have a lawyer friend file a suit against me first for all kinds of BS claims in district court. Why? Because even though he had nothing he knew I’d have to dump more money into getting a lawyer to settle the ridiculous suit…in the end we settled for 1/3rd of what he owed me and I wound up spending 2x that in lawyer fees, all because I threatened to take him to small claims court. And that was WITH a well written contract and service agreement in place.

Remember, small claims court isn’t a guarantee of any payment, just a verdict that they have to pay you. The amount of time, effort, and money you may need to invest to actually get anything from the scumbag (even if you send it to collections) is often not worth the time, grief and stress.

The amount of time, effort, and money you may need to invest to actually get anything from the scumbag (even if you send it to collections) is often not worth the time, grief and stress.

Actually, it is. Cheap as educations go.

“> Experience is a tough teacher, because you get the tests first and the lessons afterward.> “ - Vernon Sanders Law