If a client didn’t sign a contract but verbally agreed to pay, how can I get what they owe me?

UPDATED: Sep 30, 2022

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If a client didn’t sign a contract but verbally agreed to pay, how can I get what they owe me?

I completed a repair job for a client at a quoted price. She paid a third down for materials but did not sign the contract. When the job was finished included mistakes fixed, she refused to pay the rest of the quoted price, saying that the job was rough after telling me that it was fine before it was completed. Is there a way to collect my money even if she didn’t sign the contract?

Asked on October 13, 2016 under Business Law, Tennessee


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 6 years ago | Contributor

Oral agreements to pay for doing work are enforceable the same way written agreements are--obviously, it's easier to prove the existence of and terms of a written agreement than an oral (unwritten) one, but legally, the oral agreement is enforceable. There are also other legal theories that could help you recover money, such as "unjust enrichment" (the law doesn't let her keep the benefit of your work without paying for it) and "quantum meruit" (if you let someone who reasonably expected to be paid work for you, you have to pay the reasonable value of the work done). Therefore, there are legal grounds to sue, and so to get your money, you can and should sue her. (Lawsuits are how you get money from people who owe you but will not voluntarily pay.)
If you sue her, she can try to raise as a defense that the work was not up to professional standards, was flawed, and/or required to be redone by someone else. If she can prove that, that can reduce what you will be paid--basically, she can get a "credit" or "rebate" for substandard work--but she has to be able to prove it in court by a "preponderance of the evidence," or that it is more likely than not that this was the case. In an extreme-enough case, it could prevent you from being paid at all, but the work would have to be *very* bad for that.

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