5 Steps to Handling Deadbeat Clients

If you do enough freelancing, it will happen soon enough. Someone is not going to pay you.

Whether you do writing, design or doing any other freelance work on the Web, eventually you will get a deadbeat client and it is best to be prepared for that eventuality than to stress over it when it happens.

Though there are many steps you can and should take to mitigate the effect of and reduce the number of such incidents, an article for another day, today we’re going to focus on your rights when you’ve done the work and the other person refuses to pay.

How it Begins

Most experienced freelancers have a gut feeling about a client long before he’s confirmed to be a deadbeat. Whether it’s a rush order or something unusual going on with the client, a client failing to pay is rarely a surprise.

However, those feelings are only confirmed after the invoice is sent. A once-communicative client goes silent, stops answering calls and doesn’t respond to emails. Though they are happy to use the work, the money that is now owed is never sent.

Once the deadline has passed and it’s clear that the client has no intention on paying, it’s time to kick things into action.

Though not every client may be worth the full response (if you’re owed a very small amount it may be wiser to just ignore it) here are the steps you can take to get what is owed or at least reclaim your work.

1. Be Persistent

Don’t stop sending the invoices. Keep sending them and using every available means, email, fax and postal mail (using certified mail if at all possible). Sometimes a “deadbeat” client is just one who has had a temporary lapse and, by staying on the ball, you can be first in line for when they return to normal.

More importantly though, it establishes a chain that shows you made a reasonable effort to notify your client of what was owed and collect those funds. The better the chain, stronger of a case you have down the road.

2. Escalate, Carefully

When invoices stop working and the past due stamps aren’t getting the job done, it’s time to escalate. How long you wait will depend on your contract and the terms set under it, but generally there comes a time to stop sending invoices and start sending cease and desist letters.

Once again, send them by any means available with a heavy emphasis on certified mail if possible. If you can show that you are serious with these letters, you’ll have a better chance of success.

On this note, you can draft your own letter or use a stock letter from my site as a starting point. The main thing is that the letter should be professional but stern.

At this point, it’s time to stop treating it as a client issue and start looking at it as a copyright issue.

3. File a Takedown Notice

As mentioned above, at this point the matter is not so much a client/freelancer matter as a regular copyright one. Whether you have a contract or not and regardless of the rights or license you aimed to give them in the work, the contract does not execute until you receive payment. Therefore, they have no right to use the content without paying and you still have copyright in it.

If sending invoices and cease and desist letters don’t work, it’s time to take action. You can file a takedown notice with the site hosting the content. If it is located within the U.S., EU or any other nation that has a notice and takedown system, you should be able to get the work removed.

If you can’t get the work removed directly, you can get it removed from the search engines as all four of the major search engines accept DMCA notices.

For more information, see my Stopping Internet Plagiarism section, specifically parts 3-5.

4. Consider a Lawsuit

If the takedown notice isn’t able to work or they simply keep putting the work back, you may need to look at filing a lawsuit. Unfortunately, that will likely be impossible in most cases.

The problem is this, if you are a U.S. resident filing a lawsuit for a work you haven’t registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is nearly impossible. It is impractical financially as there are no statutory damages available (meaning no attorney is going to take the case), forcing you to sue solely for the greater of what they lost or you gained (better known as actual damages).

However, if you have a written contract with the client and the client guarantees you reasonable attorney’s fees in the event of non-payment, it may be practical to file a suit, if nothing else than to make a point.

Still, that would be something to discuss with your attorney as it would need to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

5. Tell Others

Though I am loathe to recommend mob justice, this is rare exception to the rule. Telling other freelances that a client doesn’t pay will help protect them should they get offers from the client and will help reduce the pool of victims for the deadbeat should they continue to try and scam others.

Often times deadbeat clients only pay up when they feel the heat from a public disclosure but be careful not to let the mob get out of hand or to get into a public shouting match with the person involved. That can do more to harm your reputation than that of deadbeat.

Be careful with this method and use it sparingly, but don’t forget that it can be a powerful and important tool.

Bottom Line

It’s important to remember that, whether you have a written contract or not, the terms of the license don’t take effect until payment is made so you have ownership of your work and the right to block their use of it until they complete their half of the bargain.

Though you shouldn’t treat a client like a regular plagiarist, realizing that you have the copyright in your work and they don’t have a license to use it gives you a great deal of power. It’s just a matter of finding the correct way to flex that power.

The good news is that, if you’re careful but firm you can probably resolve a good majority of your deadbeat cases without resorting to drastic measures and while getting your money. Best of all, if you earn a reputation as someone who stands up to deadbeats, you’ll probably find that you have fewer such cases to deal with, making your freelance operation run much, much more smoothly.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.


I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.





15 responses
  1. Angie Papple Johnston Avatar

    Another excellent post. Goes right back to having a contract, too – and good for you to encourage people to go get ’em! 🙂

    1. Jonathan Bailey Avatar
      Jonathan Bailey

      Thanks for the support. Contracts are definitely key and I can say safely it will be a point I will parrot repeatedly over the course of this column 🙂

  2. Kris Decker Avatar

    In thirteen years as a freelancer, I’ve experienced this problem three times. On two of those occasions, I was eventually compensated.

    One of those times was actually with an agency that had already received generous compensation from the client, but was putting off payment to their contractors. Turned out, the agency was going out of business and just stalling long enough to get out the door and leave no forwarding address, so to speak.

    Before it was too late, I contacted the client (did I mention they were an enormous multinational corporation?)I explained that unfortunately they could not use the copy I’d written for them as it would constitute copyright infringement. The client IMMEDIATELY contacted the agency president. I can only assume she put the fear of God in him by threatening a HUGE lawsuit. (Packed a much bigger punch than the threat of small claims court coming from me.)

    Well, wouldn’t you know it? The agency president suddenly “found” my check. (Son of gun, he thought he’d mailed that thing.) Not only did he personally call me to tell me payment was on its way, but he dispatched it via courier.

    It is sad that there are people out there willing to cheat others out of the rightful pay that is due them. Unfortunately, they do exist. My advice is to trust your gut instincts going in. If something feels wrong, head for the hills and don’t look back.

    Kris Decker
    Freelance Writer/Marketing Consultant

    1. Jonathan Bailey Avatar
      Jonathan Bailey

      That is a very sad, but very common, story you tell. Sadly, there are some people who are willing to cheat, especially when they have nothing to lose. Congrats on getting your payment!

  3. Phil Avatar

    Step 6:

    Recommend your competition to them. 🙂

    1. Jonathan Bailey Avatar
      Jonathan Bailey

      If only it were so easy…

  4. Christina Crowe ( @CashCampfire ) Avatar

    GREAT advice! I’ve always been afraid of a client not paying for my services. Before reading this blog post, I would have had no idea how to handle such a client. The steps you outlined sounds a bit like how I handled someone who plagiarized an article of mine in the past. It makes me more at ease now that I know what I would have to do and that I’ve been through a similar experience before.

    Thanks a bunch! This will help me later on down the road, for sure. 🙂

    1. Jonathan Bailey Avatar
      Jonathan Bailey

      Glad the article was able to help! Much of this is common sense but it’s always nice to have it written down as a plan rather than trying to figure out what to do along the way. Most people eventually follow this path but have to learn the hard way sometimes and I’m just hoping to prevent that.

      Thanks for the praise and let me know if you have any questions!

  5. Marcia Frost Avatar

    Good advice, unfortunately it only applies to web writing and I’ve never had a web client that hasn’t paid. It’s the print ones that are the problem and you can’t “takedown” anything.

    You mentioned telling others. I know there are a number of places online to do this. Do you have any recommendations of legitimate ones? I have two magazine publishers and a book publisher that are still in business and owe me money for a long time.

    Thanks, Marcia

    1. Jonathan Bailey Avatar
      Jonathan Bailey

      Basically, I would say find any good freelance writing community (including this one) and publish it there. It’s only a last resort but you want to go where the writers are, not where people call for such stories.

      Also, don’t forget about the SEO power of your own blog and site. Writers often Google potential clients and if you can rank well for their name, you can wreak havoc…

  6. scarlet05 Avatar

    Thank you for answering my question. There is a lot of good information in this blog post. =)

    1. Jonathan Bailey Avatar
      Jonathan Bailey

      Very welcome! Glad I was able to answer it!

  7. Toni Star Avatar

    This is a good post. I have not been paid by several people; people that I have done work for. Sending emails seldom works and at this point I don’t have addresses to write to but I can and will tell others about them.

    If I don’t hear from one I’m trying to contact, I will go ahead and use these articles elsewhere. I feel that they’r mine; especially since they have not been acknowledged or paid for.

    Thank you for the info. Very helpful!


    1. Jonathan Bailey Avatar
      Jonathan Bailey

      Glad the article was of use. Don’t forget to try and secure removal of the work if at all possible though, after all, as long as the work is online they are benefiting from it while you are still not paid.

  8. Toni Star Avatar

    Yes, I will and again, many thanks!


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