How to Collect Past Due Payments

One of the most common questions I receive as freelance committee chair is how to collect payments from clients. Since I started freelancing in 2003, I’ve only had to take two clients through the collection process to receive my money. I attribute my success rate to two key factors – screening clients carefully and putting terms in writing.

Screening clients – I’d love to say that I’m so business savvy that I immediately sense a bad deal, or a deadbeat, when I see one, but that’s not the case. I have been burned a time or two, so I know what to look for and, of course, basic common sense applies. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

For example, an ad asking you to write a 2,000 word article about the Occupy movement “for consideration” sends up several red flags. First, the ad doesn’t provide much detail. Many ads are vague, so you’ll want to do further research to see if the advertiser is legitimate. Also, the topic is too broad. It should be specific to a media organization’s audience. An article on the Occupy movement for the Wall Street Journal would be completely different than one written for Seattle Business.

The biggest red flag is the statement that the article is “for consideration.” In other words, if the client doesn’t like your work, he doesn’t pay you. Some articles, like humor columns, are written “on spec” because humor is subjective. An assignment like this, however, presumes a certain amount of research, detail, sourcing and fact checking. Unless you are desperate for work or need the clip, I wouldn’t take the assignment without a written agreement or a “kill fee.” If you are interested in this assignment, research it carefully to see if the risk is worth taking.

What if an editor or small business client approaches you by phone? How do you screen the client then? For me, I can tell within the first five minutes of a call, sometimes sooner, if I will mesh with the client. If we talk easily with each other and the editor or client answers my questions thoroughly and professionally, we might be a good fit. If, however, the prospective client and I seem to have different styles or don’t agree on a particular approach for an assignment, I am cautious about taking on the project because I don’t want to waste my time or hers. She will appreciate the fact that I turned it down rather than having to fight her on every word or comma.

Put it in writing – For most freelance journalism work, the editor or publisher will have a contract for you to sign, including the agreed upon assignment, due date, pay rate, terms and rights. When the client does not provide a contract, however, I recommend that you present your own business agreement for both parties to sign. It can be a simple one or two-page agreement that simply states what the two parties are agreeing to in terms of the assignment, the rate of pay, when payment is expected and any other relevant terms such as confidentiality or republishing. Of course, a contract or agreement does not guarantee that you’ll get paid, but you’ll have the facts on your side if you have to take the client to collection.

Collecting past due payments – Let’s say that you’ve taken on an assignment, turned it in on time and to the editor’s satisfaction. It has even been published, but you have not been paid as promised. I’d wait until the payment is at least 10 days late to contact the editor about nonpayment. Then I’d send a friendly reminder by email with a “return receipt” from your email program. If you are not paid within 30 days of the agreed upon date, I’d send another email to the editor asking for an explanation why the payment has not been made. Depending on what he tells me, I will forward a copy of the email to the publisher or accounting staff, knowing that I will probably not be asked to write for the media organization again.

At 45 days past due, I’d send a collection letter via postal mail demanding payment, including a copy of the contract or business agreement. I’d explain that the work was completed in good faith and that payment needs to be made within 15 days or the account will be turned over to a collection agency. This usually prompts a payment. If it doesn’t though, be prepared to follow through.

Contact a local collection agency to find out what documentation you’ll need and what rates they’ll charge you for their work. Sometimes it is a flat fee, and sometimes it is a percentage of what they collect. I prefer the flat fee and, as long as it is permitted in the state where I am doing business, I pass that fee along to the client (this is stated in my business agreement) along with applicable late fees.

I’ve had to do this twice, once with a national publication and once with a wedding planner for whom I wrote web copy. In both cases, I contracted a collection agency and was finally paid. But this is not a fun part of freelancing, so do what you can to avoid putting yourself in this position by screening your clients and putting your terms in writing. It is worth the investment of your time on the front end to save your back end – and bottom line.

Next week:  How to create a business agreement


Dana Neuts is a full-time freelance writer based in the Seattle area. In addition to writing for publications like South Sound magazine and The Seattle Times, she is the owner and publisher of several hyperlocal community sites including iLoveKent.net. She is the regional director for SPJ’s Region 10 and the chairman of the SPJ freelance committee.


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