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I'm a freelance web developer, and I have a client I'm currently making a website for. I'm in the final stages of the project, with only some rough minor details left to attend to before I would normally send in my invoice and conclude my business with the client. While the work left is minor, it's still a good few hours of work, and the current project is visibly unfinished in some portions of it. Unfortunately, my client has had a death of a close family member happen not long ago, and this death has struck my client quite hard both financially and otherwise. As such, my client has informed me that they can no longer afford for me to continue to work on the project.

I'm now torn between what I should do. The client asked me to send in an invoice for the work I've done so far, however I don't want to leave the project in an unfinished state, especially since it's so close to being completely finished. Not only would I feel bad about leaving them with an unfinished product while still getting paid for it, but it's also something I simply couldn't showcase in my resume/portfolio, since an unfinished product like this would send a bad image to people that lack the context of the project.

However, I also can't justify working for free when I have other, paying clients I need to attend to. Likewise, I definitely would not want to put any additional burden on my client in a very difficult time for them. I'd definitely be willing to lower the rate for the last few hours of work, but I feel like that's an inappropriate response to the situation as well.

What is my best course of action here?

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    Probably more on-topic at freelancing.stackexchange.com – mustaccio Sep 10 at 13:12
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    Would the finished site help them generate money with which to pay you? – zero298 Sep 10 at 23:59
  • Get in the preliminary invoice as early as possible to make sure you land on the list of creditors for possible settlement. You can sill finish the project after that. – eckes Sep 11 at 10:59
  • Do they have a curator? – Mast Sep 11 at 12:48
  • "but it's also something I simply couldn't showcase in my resume/portfolio" So you would do it mainly for you and not for your client. – glglgl Sep 11 at 13:00

12 Answers 12

170

However, I also can't justify working for free

You don't have to justify anything to anyone but yourself.

One angle the other answers haven't touched on is goodwill and client relations. When you go out of your way to do someone a good turn when they're hurting it's never forgotten. You may not believe in karma (I don't really). But reputation as a freelancer is your biggest asset and you just started a fan club.

As an example we had a bad tsunami here years ago, I made a business decision and donated all my stock and rebuilt networks gratis for clients who basically lost everything. It cost me a lot. But those clients went on to bigger and better things and never forgot me. Continued using my services and praised me to all and sundry.

In your case it's just a few hours that you can write off or be hard nosed business about.

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    I'm reminded when covid first hit and some landlords waived rent and some posted homeless shelter locations on the doors of tenants who were behind. Purely speaking financially, the latter was probably the smarter decision in the short term. But the landlord who helped people out will probably win in the long term – eps Sep 10 at 20:18
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    If you take this route (which I recommend), remember it's still your lowest priority, and ensure paying clients are satisfied before you sneak in a few hours here. – Cristobol Polychronopolis Sep 10 at 20:39
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    Since this opens people up to being taken advantage of, this should have a stipulation about the history of the two businesses as part of the consideration. Would you do this for a company that generally jerks you around? Or is run by a good friend? Or is well known for not paying their bills? Or is a well known advocate for at risk people? Some instances it's admirable to waive the fees to help those who also help, but being a rube for a crook isn't recommended. It's great that you suggest to help others, but this needs a warning to be a good answer. – computercarguy Sep 10 at 21:39
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    @computercarguy: Even in the OP's description, the client has asked to be invoiced for work already complete knowing they have financial difficulty. It sounds very much like a client interested in fulfilling their obligations. That's a client worth doing a little extra for and keeping them for the longer haul. – Joel Etherton Sep 10 at 21:45
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    @computercarguy I have probably been conned more than once, it's par for the course. When I write things off I'm level headed about it, but I'll take people at their word. The majority of people are not trying to con you, and 9 fans out of 10 is fine. Plus the personal satisfaction of helping is a payment of a sort in itself in multiple ways. – Kilisi Sep 11 at 0:15
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There's an old joke that may make the point.

A man is home when he hears a knock on the door. When he opens it, the person at the door starts to tell them about a poor family in town, the husband lost his job, the kids are sick, they're behind in their bills and can't pay their rent. He asks them if they could donate to help this poor family.

The man is impressed at this stranger's compassion and says "Wow, I'm touched by your compassion. Who are you, by the way."

"Their landlord"

If you are not pressed for cash, the best approach would be to finish, submit an invoice, and arrange a payment plan, especially if this generates revenue to your client's business. If you can help him out of his financial state, he's in a better position to help you.

One of my exes was a bill collector. She knew every charitable organization in the state. If one of the debtors told her about some tragedy where they couldn't pay their bills, she told them who to contact for help with ALL of their bills.

Guess who got paid first?

If you can get your client some help, or even take the pressure off of him by arranging a payment plan, you get some goodwill from him, and a story to tell. You also get a bit of satisfaction from being a good person.

The worst case scenario is that your client is an ingrate or doesn't pay you. At that point, you can put him in collections, and get SOMETHING back for your time, and at least have that project added to your portfolio. You can also write the loss off on your taxes.

This may also be the best chance of you getting paid anything.

If your client says he can't pay the full invoice, you can at least get something from him, and again, write off any difference as a loss on your taxes. The invoice creates a paper trail that you can show an accountant at tax time.

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    I'm not following the write-off part... what's the difference between writing off the loss against a ledger entry that said you were owed the money, and simply not including the money you weren't paid in income in the first place??? – Michael J. Sep 10 at 21:14
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    @MichaelJ. You write it off as a bad debt. – Old_Lamplighter Sep 11 at 1:33
  • @MichaelJ. you can use the lost income to pay less taxes. thebalancesmb.com/… – WernerCD Sep 12 at 21:23
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    @MichaelJ. there's no difference if you are doing cash based accounting, if on the other hand you are accounting accruals you have to write off the bad debt as a loss to cancel the unpaid invoice. – Jasen Sep 13 at 3:06
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What is my best course of action here?

There's no "best" here. If you are a freelancer, you can choose to do whatever you like, within the bounds of your contracts.

If it were me, I'd send an invoice for my work so far and promise to come back and finish when the client's situation changes. It's business, not charity.

That said, you can always choose to offer your services for free or for a reduced rate. It's completely your choice.

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    The chances of the client being able to pay you anything in the future you are bigger when he gets a finished product ... – Daniel Sep 11 at 7:47
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If you feel generous because of the client's misfortune, you submit your invoice and give them extra time to pay.

If there's extra work that they plan to pay you for in the future, they're effectively asking you for a loan. Consider the actual cost to you of doing the work (maybe you have a slack period coming up) and the likelihood of them ever paying. A bank would ask for interest and/or collateral to justify the risk of loan.

Some clients go bankrupt and can't pay, that's just a risk that every business takes.

If you don't have much work, you could finish this just so you can add it to your portfolio. However if you have other paying clients that take all your available time, you don't need a better portfolio.

In general, you should do the highest value work first.

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You are looking to balance business sense with charity in a way that makes sense to you.

One of the biggest questions is whether their business or whatnot is still going to be in existence moving forward - if not, then free Web site work is wasted time on their part as well, as they won't be using it! Make sure and understand what's going on with them before doing anything. If they're going out of business, then your problem reduces to "maybe you're going to get paid, maybe not."

If they are, then you get to decide whether to complete the work at no or half cost, and if you want to offer extended payment terms for the existing work and/or the new work. This will be driven by the existing relationship with them, if you think they will be a source of future work or references that will compensate for the free/discounted work, and your own personal balance between business sense, how much work you have right now, and goodwill.

If there's only 2 hours of work left, you're not full up on work right now, and you feel like the site being in your portfolio would help get other deals, do it free! The one thing I'd say is you should probably make delivering the last bit contingent on payment for the rest, or else you might find yourself doing the entire gig for free and not just the last bit. (This may be a nice way to encourage the payment on that, as there's a real risk of them just defaulting.)

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You have a real decision here because multiple approaches are correct both legally, morally and business-wise.

Short-term paid work beats unpaid work and work paid now beats work paid later. So if you yourself need money and now, obligations to yourself and your family trump moral obligations to strangers.

Long-term, happy customers are return customers, and in general an investment into a customer relationship is worth it, both financially and personally. You have many ways on how to finish the work, get paid, and consider your client's situation. You could, for example, offer him to write the bill for the remaining work with a due date in two years. If you can afford to not collect the money now, or give him a discount or any of the other options outlined in other answers, the customer relation could be a good long-term investment.

It depends on your situation and on how likely this will be a return customer, but also on how in general your business runs and how you want to run your business. Do you see clients as people that you relate to, or as projects to be completed? Can you afford to not see payment for a while and just don't want to do unpaid work on principle (a good principle, btw) or do you need the money to pay bills yourself?

You should also try to think lateraly. Is there something else you could make a deal on? Maybe the client can offer something instead of payment? It could be that you can use the site as reference, place a "website design by..." footer into the live site as advertisement or use something from their business. I've been a professional negotiator for some years, and often the solution when both sides were stuck was to find something left or right of the main topic.

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A difficult situation. So some compromise is called for. Here's what I would do (I am assuming that 80% of the work has already been done):

(i) Invoice your client for 60% of the agreed price.
(ii) Let them know that you will finish the project at a discount, for an additional payment of 20% of the agreed price.

So you are taking a 20% hit, but your client will appreciate it. If you simply invoiced your client for the full 80%, you would both feel bad about it.

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Years ago I worked for a really good boss. I decided to leave the company anyway but I promised him I'd finish some work he really needed. When I realized the work would not be finished before my final day I decided I'd continue to go to work anyway until completion. That company used what I worked on for several years after I left.

I wanted to do it because of the working relationship I had developed, and I felt the circumstances warranted I give my time for free. This does not mean I would do it every time.

I don't want to leave the project in an unfinished state, especially since it's so close to being completely finished. Not only would I feel bad about leaving them with an unfinished product while still getting paid for it, but it's also something I simply couldn't showcase in my resume/portfolio, since an unfinished product like this would send a bad image to people that lack the context of the project.

It sounds like you have made your mind up already and you know what to do.

Every situation is different. But if you feel it is the right thing to do, just as I did then, do it.

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  • You worked for several years for free? – guest Sep 11 at 7:37
  • No. I worked about 2 weeks for free to complete the work. After that, the company continued to use for several years what I worked on. – Dave White Sep 11 at 7:46
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Do you expect to get any future work from this client?

If so, finish the project and cut them some slack in payment. If not, remember that if the client's beloved granny has just died, you don't know if this is the first or the twenty-first time they have told that story as an excuse! If they are offering part payment for the work already done, take it and move on. It won't be the last time this sort of thing happens to your business.

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This seems quite straightforward. The budget for the project has been cut. The reason does not matter. The manager has asked you to cease additional work on the project and send an invoice for work already completed.

There is no need to do anything else. If it is "almost done", someone else can finish it later.

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Quote the customer for the extra work with a due date of six months. Submit the current invoice, making it clear that on payment (and on receipt of the extra order) you'll upload the extra work to the server. Giving the customer a year's grace is excessive IMO, since if he's not got his arse in gear after nine months or so he'll be so badly behind with his accounting that he'll never recover.

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This is already answered by the principle "The customer is always right".

The client asked me to send in an invoice for the work I've done so far

Because, the client intends to pay you for the fraction of work done so far.

Now, let's review another principle: "Shut up after the sale". The customer's personal situation is their business, and they did not ask for, and probably will not appreciate your attempts to meddle.

Simply give them the invoice they asked for, and let them pay you.

Presumably, once their situation is worked out, they'll call you back in to finish. Rocking the boat by going against their wishes would reduce the chances of that.

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