Statutes of Limitation for Breach of Contracts
A client's failure to pay for services rendered pursuant to contract constitutes a "breach of contract." If you can't otherwise get your client to pay, then you may sue for the payment in state court in a breach of contract action. When the amount due is relatively small, it may be easiest and best to file suit in "small claims" or "magistrate" court. Some courts have minimum amounts to sue starting at $1,000 and all have maximums ranging up to about $15,000. Even if you're owed more than the maximum, you can forego the excess and seek the maximum allowed by the small claims court.
Since the economy has slowed, some clients don't have money now. So you may want to wait a bit to sue, hoping that the client gets money later (balancing the risk that the client will go out of business). But the time that you have to make your claim is limited. This is based on a legal principle called "the statute of limitations." Statutes of limitation, in general, are laws that prescribe the time limits during which you can file lawsuits. The deadlines vary with the type of claim and depend on the state where the claim is made. The purpose of them is to reduce the unfairness of defending actions after a substantial period of time has elapsed. They allow people to go on with their lives, regardless of guilt, after a certain amount of time has passed.
In the United States, the statute of limitations to sue for breach of a written contract ranges from 3-15 years. It usually is a bit shorter for an oral contract. As an alternative, you may want to sue for copyright infringement instead of breach of contract if the client has used your photos without payment. Copyright infringement has a 3 year statute of limitations. Check my January 16, 2006, May 26, 2005, and August 15, 2008 blogs for more information.
Whatever you do, be sure to take steps to protect your work and your business!