Here’s How to Protect Yourself From Freelance Clients Who Won’t Pay

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Being a freelancer can be great. You can pursue your passions, set your own schedule and work with interesting people.

But working as a freelancer also means your monthly income can vary drastically and you’re often relying on others’ responsiveness in order to complete a project — two serious trade-offs to consider before quitting your full-time job to do contract work 24/7.

The 2019 Freelancing in America survey by the Freelancers Union and Upwork noted about 57 million people identified as freelancers in 2019, and that they cumulatively raked in $1 trillion, or 5% of the country’s GDP.

With freelancers making up 35% of the country’s workforce last year, you might think getting paid on time is no problem for most of them, but that’s not the case.

Freelancers are plagued by the need to chase down payments owed to them. Many freelancers report being “ghosted” by a publication, meaning the contracting outlet never replied and never remitted payment. Others say it takes months to receive payments for anything from $200 to thousands of dollars.

Yolanda Evans, who has freelanced as a journalist for 14 years, primarily writes about travel and culture from her homebase in Ireland.

Earlier this year, Evans was contracted by a well-known digital pop-culture outlet for a piece about growing up with parents of color for Black History Month. Despite sending an invoice with her draft, the outlet didn’t pay her.

“At first, after I emailed the editor about not being paid yet, she said she never got the right [payment] information from me,” said Evans. “I knew that was wrong because my information is always on my invoice. After sending her the right information, I never heard from her again.”

After nearly giving up on getting the $200 owed to her, Evans was finally put in touch with someone at the publication, who helped push along her request for payment. Months after turning in the piece, Evans finally got paid.

What You Can Do When Your Freelance Clients Won’t Pay

Nearly every freelancer has a story like this. Sadly, chasing down a check is something you’ll probably have to do eventually. You do have some tools at your disposal, though. Here’s what you can do to encourage your freelance clients to pay you on time.

1. Sign a Contract

Even if the work you’re doing is for your best friend, sign a contract. A contract that describes the scope of work (i.e. topic, length, deadline, etc.), your rate or fee, how and when you will be paid is critical.

Contracts are legally binding documents that give both the employer and contractor incentive to fulfill their parts of the bargain. A contract also prevents “he said, she said” disputes down the line.

Contracts don’t need to be fancy or even drafted by a lawyer. As long as the contract includes the details of the assignment, the rate, a payment method and deadline, you’ll be good to go!

Finally, be sure both parties actually sign and date the document — it’s not valid unless this happens!

2. Know Your Point of Contact

From the start, understand who you’re working with. For journalists, that’s likely to be an editor. For a consultant, it may be a project manager. For a graphic designer, it may be a creative director.

If you’re contracted by a freelancing service or third-party website, don’t hesitate to ask who you can reach out to should there be any questions or issues.

It’s also important to understand that the main point of contact may not be the person directly responsible for executing payment – in many cases, a hold-up may be in the client’s financial department.

“The challenge for a lot of freelancers is that the way many places pay is based on both an editorial calendar and how the company’s finance department is structured,” said Kelly O’Mara, editor-in-chief of Triathlete. “We’ll get invoiced, and then need to go through the editorial process, then turn the invoices over to the finance department, and then the finance department pays the freelancer.”

In some cases, you may just be a number in a very large payment system.

“Sometimes at large organizations, there is an entirely separate division from the client’s division that is responsible for getting you paid,” O’Mara said. “You may have a login to an account where you submit your invoice, and then a team on the backend is responsible for getting you a check or direct deposit.”

The takeaway is that knowing who to go to with a payment issue is key because your contact may have little to no ability to speed up the process. Keeping a cool head throughout any remittance-related conversations may help ease the tensions on both sides.

3. Advocate for Yourself

It might feel pushy or aggressive, especially if you’re new to the freelance industry, but it’s perfectly acceptable to advocate for what is rightfully yours.

“The day after I’m owed payment and I don’t get paid… I’m emailing people,” said Evans.

Evans said she emailed the editor she’d worked with “six or seven” times before successfully getting what was owed to her.

Don’t be afraid to be persistent in the pursuit of payment. If it’s crickets from the client a few days after you’re due to receive the cash amount, follow up with your contact.

“A lot of people won’t push for their money,” said Evans. “Go after the money that is yours.”

A good rule of thumb is to check in about your payment once a week — just frequently enough to keep it top of mind, but not so much that you’re stressing out the client. However, if things remain stagnant, you do have some last-resort legal options to consider.

A selfie of a woman who is wearing glasses and a headscarf.
“The day after I’m owed payment and I don’t get paid… I’m emailing people,” said Yolanda Evans, who has freelanced as a journalist.

4. The Law Is on Your Side

Most of us don’t want to threaten legal action, but sometimes it’s either that or you miss out on a payment you may have been relying on.

This is where the contract we mentioned earlier will be key.

“Independent contractors by default retain all the copyright of all the materials they create, so when a publication doesn’t pay according to the contract, they’re breaching the contract that gives a client the right to use your work,” according to business lawyer and entrepreneur Rachel Brenke.

Finally, when you’ve exhausted your options, you have one last choice: taking your client to small claims court.

Small claims court is reserved for awards generally totaling $10,000 or less (although each state has its own maximum). To find out more, check with your state’s Judicial Branch website for all the forms needed to begin the process.

Keep in mind, though, that small claims cases can take months, or even years, to be resolved. This should only be considered as a last-ditch option.

While you may want to keep your legal rights in your back pocket just in case, opt for amicable, non-threatening emails whenever possible. At the end of the day, most publications and clients do want you to be paid fairly and on-time. Give them the chance to follow through and save the legal discussion for more dire situations.

Kristin Jenny is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.