my two cents

My Ex-Boyfriend Owes Me $10,000. How Do I Get Him to Pay Me Back?

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Dear Charlotte,

My ex-boyfriend owes me over ten -thousand dollars. I have it in writing that he agreed to repay me once he sold some property he owned. He recently sold that property (I have proof), but he has not responded to my attempts to contact him. Last we spoke, he said that he would contact me regarding the money, and also not to call him because it would upset his new girlfriend, who has also shut down his Facebook page (supposedly). How can I get him to stop ignoring me? What can I do to get him to pay me back?

First of all, congratulations on getting this guy out of your life. Now you just have to wash your hands of him once and for all, without losing your mind or money. This won’t be simple; there’s nothing like an outstanding $10,000 to transform a calm, composed adult into an earth-scorching vigilante who scours the internet for solutions at 3 a.m. And that’s why I don’t want you to lose any sleep fretting over this — get a lawyer instead.

Yes, you could try to take your ex to small claims court. This option may seem appealing because it’s cheap (you can represent yourself, so legal fees won’t be an issue), but it won’t solve the problem of “collecting” — actually forcing your ex to pony up is a separate process, after you’ve won your case. In other words, you could win the case, only to wind up right back where you are right now. Plus, each state has a dollar limit on how much can be disputed in small claims court (in some cases, it’s as lows as $2,500 — you can check your state’s rules here), and $10,000 might be above the cap.

Another upside to a lawyer: there’s nothing like inserting a third party to help you maintain a cool(er) distance from the problem. You don’t need a fancy one; according to attorney Laurie Israel, who specializes in family law, someone young and cheap who needs the experience will meet your needs, as this case won’t involve complex legal jujitsu — just time and paperwork. You can find a directory of local attorneys on the American Bar Association’s website; if your ex lives in a different state, you will probably have to sue him there (another reason to have your lawyer take care of it — you’ve got better things to do than drive all over the place chasing him down), so make sure whomever you retain is barred accordingly. You can meet and vet potential attorneys before you decide to hire them, so get someone you like and trust.

Your lawyer’s first order of business will be to send your ex a threatening letter via certified mail, stating that if he does not pay you back by a certain date, he will be sued. (Make sure to give him a big-enough time window, in case he’s out of town and tries to use the “I wasn’t home” excuse.) You should review the letter before it gets posted, and make sure it includes a return envelope — ready and waiting for your ex’s fat repayment check, of course — addressed to your lawyer’s office, to keep things clean and professional.

For this initial step, your lawyer should charge an hourly rate, probably in the $200- to $300-per-hour range depending on where you live and how established their legal practice is. Israel predicts that writing and following up on this letter will take your lawyer about three hours total, billed in five or ten-minute increments (so, somewhere between $400 and $900).

Hopefully, this letter should sufficiently freak out your ex, convince him to pay up, and put the matter to rest. Nobody wants to get sued, especially when they know they will probably lose; it’s embarrassing to get served, and it’d be costly for him to hire his own legal counsel. But if he’s still in denial and/or thinks you might not have the staying power to see this through, then it’s time to kick things up a notch.

For this next step, you do not want to keeping paying your lawyer by the hour; you should arrange for a contingency fee instead. This is a standard payment model where your lawyer only gets paid if you win (so you have nothing to lose), in which case they get a certain percentage of the money recovered — usually about 30 percent. Yes, $6,667 is significantly less than your original $10,000. But it’s a lot more than the zero dollars you’ll get if your ex keeps dodging you. And it gives your attorney an incentive to work hard.

From here, your lawyer will file a lawsuit and you’ll have your day in court. Once a judge rules in your favor, your lawyer will start the secondary (or “supplementary”) process of putting your ex — now your “debtor,” in the eyes of the law — under pressure until he coughs up. This process works differently in each state, but will probably require another court hearing where your lawyer presents the judge’s decision (your debtor owes you $10,000) and your ex must reveal his assets, employment, and other sources of income. If he doesn’t show, then the judge will issue a civil arrest warrant — so he can actually be arrested for failing to pay you. From there, the state has the power to garnish his wages or even freeze his bank accounts until you get your money back.

While some of this will be satisfying, a lot of it will be tedious, and you still won’t see that full $10,000 again. Hang in there. Your ex is probably hoping you’ll give up for the sake of getting on with your life; he’s already wasted enough of your time. But nothing helps you move on like an extra couple grand in the bank. Good luck!

How Do I Get My Ex-Boyfriend to Pay Me Back?