What to Do when a Customer Is Terminally Ill

Death don't have no mercy in this land ... December 6, 2008

We are finishing up a kitchen, and the customer was hospitalized with recently diagnosed (30 days ago) fatal cancer, and may not survive much longer.

We are paid up except for the last 6,000 on a 30,000 job. The balance due is all the profit and more. He is on morphine drip right now, and not taking calls from contractors. He is single and I don't know the relatives. Expect to have the kitchen pretty much finished next week. Advice anyone?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
I don't want to sound ruthless, but you completed your contract and are due the full amount. The fact that he is in an extremely unfortunate situation does not mean that you should sacrifice your profits. If he has been a long time friend, cut him a break, but you have to make a living.

From contributor L:
Perfect a lien?

From contributor A:
That's a heck of a position to be in, but one most of us will face at one time or another. It's not uncommon at all. You should give your attorney a call and see what your options are.

A couple of years ago I took a job building a kitchen for an 86 year old widow whose house was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. She was a dear, sweet old lady who was under more stress than she'd been under in her whole life. I built those cabinets quickly, if you know what I mean :-).

From contributor P:
Tough situation. It's happened to me twice, but both clients knew about it before initiating the transaction, and I got paid. (They weren't as sick as this guy sounds.) The cynic in me says: first make sure he's telling the truth, then send him a bill anyway, threatening a lien. The human in me says apply the Golden Rule: how would you like to be treated if the tables were reversed? You just might be out of luck. You'd be in a similar situation if he got killed one day in a car accident (which also happened to one of my clients, fortunately just after we completed the job). Life is full of unexpected events, and everyone doesn't always come out on top.

From contributor D:
You have fulfilled your contractual obligations and are owed the money for your efforts and products. One of the key tenets of the laws of this country specific to commerce and contracts is that the contractual obligations exist even after death. Your contract with him will revert to his estate upon his death.

If you feel that he will not take care of this, and I can certainly understand why paying bills would not be at the top of his list of things to do, you should file a lien against the property. The state or his executor will then be forced to pay these debts before disposing of his home.

However, if he passes and has debts exceeding the value of his assets, you will be at the end of a very long list of unsecured creditors.

I would suggest you attempt to contact him again, politely and with compassion. If he confirms that he has been diagnosed as terminal, you will want to inquire as to whom his attorney or executor is and have a conversation with them about payment.

From the original questioner:
On the good news front, I did get contacted by the customer's partner, and got the name of the conservator (and girlfriend) who will see the project through. She is authorized to make the final payments. This was a major remodel project, and there are lots of other subs who need to be paid as well. So I'm feeling much better about the next few weeks. The customer is very concerned about not shorting anyone and is a very honorable person. At question was not his willingness to pay, but simply his physical ability. He goes in for major surgery this coming Monday.

From contributor B:
I'd send some flowers, or something appropriate, without a bill. But send the bill later.

From contributor T:
I think that it is unreasonable for you to file a lien right now. Finish the job and bill it just like normal. I would think that even if your client passes away, you will get paid by the executer of the estate. Filing a lien while he is so sick won't make you look very good.

From contributor A:
It's good to hear that this may get resolved sooner than later. It's always good to deal with people who want to do the right thing. Contributor T is absolutely right about filing a lien while this guy is so sick. That could cause irreparable damage for your business and cost you a lot more long term than the $6K you still have in this job. If this doesn't get resolved and the man passes away, you would definitely have a claim against his estate.

From contributor S:
I don't want to seem heartless, but I just finished posting about a repaint job. This customer was supposed to only have 6 months left to live due to cancer when we did her job 3 years ago. 3 years later, she's still here, a major pain now. I'd file a preliminary notice right away and let the cookies fall where they may. It's not like he'll be referring any business to you.

From the original questioner:
The customer died about a week after I started this post. His doctors had said 4 months to a year, so the death did take everyone somewhat by surprise. Prior to his death, he made his girlfriend a co-signer of his personal checking account and put her in charge of finishing the remodel, and also named her executor of the will.

A week after the death, the girlfriend, grieving mother, and several others came by the house where we were finishing up the kitchen installation. A very awkward conversation with the girlfriend ensued when I asked her for the money, and she accused me of shoddy workmanship. True, she was in mourning, but the kitchen was beautiful (African mahogany). Turns out there were some blemishes on the white closet we had finished (another story in itself), and this was what she was talking about.

The following week, we fixed the closet and a few other details, and she wrote the final check, and we got paid in full. Wow. Hope this never happens again.