If you find yourself in the unfortunate, but common, situation where a customer or client has not paid you for services rendered or for merchandise already delivered, you have several options:
- Make a final demand for payment;
- Take legal action by filing a lawsuit in small claims court if the amount owed to you falls within the limited amounts allowed; or
- Take legal action by filing a lawsuit in civil trial court.
Any legal action you take against a customer would typically be filed in the county in which the customer resides or does business.
Make Final Demand for Payment
If a customer or client has not paid you, after repeated attempts to collect payment, your final option before suing should always be another attempt to obtain payment. This can be accomplished by sending a final demand letter to the customer or client demanding that payment be made. It is surprising how often the final letter is successful. Sometimes it just takes one more demand to receive payment. It is always a good idea to try one more time to be paid. And if you ultimately decide to take legal action, you may be asked whether you made a final attempt to settle your matter before going to court.
You can find a sample demand for payment letter at AllBusiness.com.
If you get no response to your final request for payment, then you should prepare to take legal action by filing a lawsuit to recover your money either in small claims court or in civil trial court.
Suing in Small Claims Court
Debt collection is one of the types of claims typically brought in small claims court. In fact, more than 50 percent of claims filed in small claims courts are filed by businesses.
Small claims courts exist for the purpose of resolving simple disputes quickly and economically, and are considered courts of limited jurisdiction, allowing claims for dollar amounts ranging from $1,500 to $25,000, depending on the state. In small claims court, the judgment is usually rendered immediately or promptly after the hearing. Appeal rights for both plaintiffs and defendants are limited.
Parties are generally not represented by attorneys in small claims court actions. Because of this, there is an abundance of information and assistance provided to parties involved in those actions.
The procedures in small claims court are much more informal than in other types of litigation. Little preparation is needed or required. Providing you have the documentation of the debt owed to your business -- i.e., a contract or invoice, evidence that services were rendered or merchandise was delivered, along with demand for payment and evidence payment was not made -- you should be able to prove your case. You should also consider beforehand any defenses the customer or client might make and be able to address and dismiss them.
It is possible the customer will offer to settle the debt once you are both in court.
If the party you are suing doesn't appear in court after receiving proper notice, you will win by default. After receiving your default judgment, you can then proceed to collect your judgment against the customer, which holds more weight than when the customer simply owed you the debt.
For a detailed discussion of suing in small claims court, go to Small Claims Court Basics at AllBusiness.com.
Suing in Civil Trial Court
If the amount of the debt exceeds the limited amount of a small claims court, you might consider suing in a more formal state court -- a trial court.
Since debt collection is often very simple, you may be able to sue the customer in state trial court without hiring an attorney. Nevertheless, state trial courts do not offer the informal procedure of small claims court, and you will have to learn and follow all of the complicated rules and procedures for bringing a lawsuit. And not only are the procedures more complicated, but it is also more expensive to pursue an action in civil trial court.
As with filing a claim in small claims court, it is possible that the mere filing of a lawsuit against a customer for nonpayment will induce a customer to offer to settle the debt.