Getting Paid – How to Collect the Money Owed to You (Legally and Ethically) – And When to Get A Lawyer to Help

It’s essential for individuals and small businesses in New York to have a healthy list of clients. But what’s even more critical is to have a healthy list of good-paying clients.

We all like to have what’s owed to us paid on time. That includes loans, business agreements, and other debts. And while getting your best friend or brother to pay you back the $50 you lent them maybe uncomfortable, keeping your business’s cash flow fluid by getting paid for work on time could be a matter of life or death for your company. 

This article will look at the ways in which you can collect the money that’s owed to you by a client or customer in a legal and ethical manner, and when you might need to ask an attorney to assist in this effort.

“I’m Not a Bill Collector!

If you run a successful business, you have to be pretty good at what you do. And unless you’re an actual bill collector running a debt collection agency, you’re not a bill collector. That’s not what you’re trained to do.

It also means you probably don’t relish asking your customers to pay their bill. It can be uncomfortable, and when you’re owed money, it’s easy to get frustrated and a bit combative. It’s an aggravating feeling: you worked hard to fulfill their request on time, and now they can’t seem to locate their wallet!

What Do I Do to Get Paid?

First, and probably the most challenging thing to do when trying to get paid, is to keep your feelings out of the issue and try to be detached and professional.

Next, resubmit your invoice on a regular basis until it’s apparent that your requests are being ignored. You may want to point out the terms of transaction, such as the fact that payment was due at a certain point for the goods or the performance of the service, and that their payment is now 30, 60, or 90 days past due.

Next, draft a collection letter requesting payment of the invoice.

From here, if there is still no response and no remittance of what is owed, send them a final request labeled “final invoice” with a notation that indicates that you’ll take further action unless you hear back within 10 days. 

Because clients don’t grow on trees, you may want to pick up the phone to talk to them. It can be much harder to ignore someone on the phone than it is a piece of mail or an email. With smaller companies, this might help to preserve the relationship, but if you’re owed a sum from a larger corporation, you may have to try to reason with someone in their accounts payable or billing department. If that’s unsuccessful, you’ll have to work your way up the corporate ladder to a decision-maker. When you get hold of the corporate officer, help them understand that cash flow is important to your business and that you can't afford to carry this unpaid receivable any longer. If the calls don't work, you might make an appointment to visit the person responsible for paying you.

If all these actions don't get you paid, you should look at your legal options.

When Should I Call a Lawyer?

When your customer’s debt is sizeable, you will want to take legal action. It’s best to work with an experienced New York small business attorney. 

In many cases, an attorney can send what is known as a demand letter. This letter is a little more intimidating than your communications and carries the weight of potential legal consequences. This letter will advise the customer that you have retained an attorney who is going to help you collect what you’re owed. This demand letter will again state the date of the transaction, the amount owed, and any significant terms, such as the payment details the customer promised to make. This letter will also include a deadline for payment and the fact that failure to pay will result in legal action. 

Hopefully, this stern letter from your attorney will motivate the customer to pay their bill. If it doesn’t, there may be other steps your lawyer can take short of litigation. Often, litigation is the last option as it can be expensive, time-consuming and the outcome is not guaranteed.

Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

Three quick tips to avoid getting into this situation in the first place.

First, have good contracts that very clearly lay out expectations regarding payment. Make sure it includes the right to stop providing the goods or services if they are behind in payments (for on-going arrangements), and also put in the ability to recover your costs if you have to take action to get paid.

Second, know your customer. If there’s a change in payment timing – for instance, they used to pay quickly and now they’re running late – or if there’s a change in leadership, consider not continuing to provide services or goods on credit.

Third, don’t let amounts get too large before demanding payment. Most businesses bill monthly. If the amounts are escalating, don’t wait for payment. Collect what you can when you can. Don’t let a customer get in over their head.

A knowledgeable local attorney can help you navigate the treacherous waters of collecting your debt. Don’t be afraid to get help.

Contact Us

If you need to collect from a customer, and the first steps haven’t worked, contact an experienced New York business attorney. Contact Francine E. Love, Founder and Managing Attorney at Love Law Firm, PLLC, at [email protected] or (516) 697-4828 in Uniondale, NY for answers to your business collection law questions.

Francine E. Love
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Founder and Managing Attorney at Love Law Firm, PLLC which dedicates its practice to New York business law