Dealing with Client Debt

Marie asks: What does one do when a client doesn’t want to pay after services have been rendered?

 

Nobody likes to be owed money, and nobody likes to owe someone else. Just the thought of conflict about payment  is pretty uncomfortable.

For many doulas, being in this situation just one time is enough to learn a good lesson about making sure our agreements are clear to begin with. It might be time to revisit your service agreement, and make sure that your payment structure is clearly outlined. Many birthworkers have a specific date by which payment is due in full before on-call time begins. If the risk for the client  is that nonpayment means that services won’t be rendered, it’s far less likely that you’ll find yourself in this situation again.

Many doulas have statements in their client contracts that also outline what circumstances, if any, would result in a refund of fees, or in having no money due. Some of these situations include failure to provide services, or  failure to provide adequate backup support if the doula is suddenly unreachable or unavailable. Some doulas also include clarifying statements about fees remaining payable in the event of an undesired birth outcome, or unexpectedly rapid labor, or other circumstances beyond the doula’s control. Having a clear service agreement can help avoid a lot of headaches and uncomfortable conversations.

Now that you are there, though, there are a few reasonable steps that can be taken. Step one would be to simply ask for what you are due. Acting sooner is usually easier than waiting.  If you’re doing a postpartum followup visit at home, you might mention when scheduling, “Oh, and I can pick up a check from you while I’m there. Do you need me to look up your balance and text that to you?”

If you won’t be seeing her in person, email might be another option. This is a good step to take when it has been a longer time, as well. Reach out in kindness. Act with the intention of clarifying your agreement with one another, with willingness to assume the best of intentions. Speak to the other person with the belief that he or she is responsible and reliable, and likely to keep her word. This intention will come across in the words you choose. “Hey, Lisa! Just checking in and following up on your file. It looks like your balance is currently $—, and our contract says that balance is due by 2 weeks after your birth (or whatever your agreement may have been). With a new baby in your world, I’m sure things have been really busy! When you have a moment, please, would you let me know when you’ve dropped that in the mail to me? Thanks!” Make sure to include your address, and information for how any checks should be made out. Sometimes, people lose track of their documents, and are embarrassed to say something as simple as “We forgot how much we owe you”. They might be hoping that you have a step in place for when that happens. In cases like these, good follow-through on your end will be enough.

If it isn’t, a second attempt at communication may need to be more direct. Consider sending hard-copy mail in addition to any e-mail. Keep it simple. This is not the time for long letters or an emotionally reactive plea. Keep it factual. A straightforward  letter or an invoice showing balance past due and a “pay by” date is a good idea at this point. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Send it certified mail, and keep the receipt.

If that doesn’t work (and goodness, let’s hope it would!), the following step would be to decide how important this is to you, and how much energy you are willing to invest. Decide whether pursuing the debt through small claims court would be worth your time. Most small claims courts have a maximum allowable limit of a few thousand dollars. Make sure your records are prepared – what your agreements were, any signed documents you have in your possession, and copies of any communications you may have sent. Your local county clerk can tell you what steps are necessary to file a claim, and the documents you may be asked to fill out are pretty simple. You’ll need your clients name and address. This may take some time, and could result in needing to show up in court, though they could decide to send payment as soon as they get the notice.

Again, use this as a learning opportunity. Create good documents for yourself to share with your clients, with your fee structure and payment dates that are clearly outlined. With hope and good preparation, you’ll never have to go through this again!

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