Help my Elderly Aunt Get Her $15,000 Back
July 25, 2017 7:03 AM   Subscribe

My aunt contracted a boat dock company to do $30,000 worth of work on her boat dock. She gave them $15,000 as a down payment per the contract terms. Shortly after she gave them the money, she found out that she had to have two very expensive surgeries, so she called them to ask them to trim the job in half and do only about $15,000 in work and just use the money they already had. Now they aren’t returning her calls and haven’t done any work.

Since they aren’t doing any work, she just wants her money back now. She visited a lawyer offering free legal advice in her town, and he told her she could write “cancelled” on the contract and write a letter to the company to get her money back.

Is there a form for this type of letter? Do you have any other advice that I can give to her to increase her chance of getting this money back?
posted by allison00 to Law & Government (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I might start by appealing to their better nature. Get your aunt to send them a letter, written in very polite, nice, non-confrontational language. She should start by sympathizing with their plight ("I realize that you must have been excited to receive this large contract for $30,000, and I know it's going to be a big disappointment to you that I'm requesting to cancel it."). She should include a copy of whatever medical documents prove that she needs the surgery. Then she should explain that she needs the money for a medical emergency -- and if it wasn't for the emergency, she would definitely honor the original agreement. Then she should ask for them to return the $15,000.

This strategy may not work, or it may already be too late for this -- but my advice would be to start with the nicest, least-aggressive strategy -- and escalate up from there, as necessary.
posted by alex1965 at 8:06 AM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Small home improvement/building trades businesses typically have very tight cash flow, which is why they want a substantial payment up front. Odds are this company already spent your aunt's money to pay for something - not necessarily related to the job they were to do for her - and simply don't have that money available to refund on short notice. They won't admit that, either, hence their duck-and-hide tactic.

I'd have your aunt start with a call to her state attorney general's office, which usually is happy to advise and intervene on consumer complaints, and also the state department of commerce, or whatever state agency is responsible for licensing this business. After she discusses her situation with those state agencies, her next step is to make a phone call/write a letter to the company informing them that she's contacted these agencies about her issue, and is prepared to escalate her complaint with both agencies unless this company returns her money by a specified date.
posted by Lunaloon at 9:26 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Start documenting everything--it's fine to keep calling but she should keep a ledger of the calls.

I know money is tight but with $15,000 at stake it's worth it to hire a lawyer to send the letter. At this early stage, you aren't really paying for the content of the letter. You're paying for the letterhead and to signal that you are going to do what it takes to get the money back.
posted by mama casserole at 9:59 AM on July 25, 2017 [8 favorites]

What is stated in the contract? Was the $15k considered a non-refundable deposit? Did they send her a new contract when she chose to down-scale the project?

Regardless, a lawyer maybe needed to help navigate.
posted by RhysPenbras at 10:01 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your state AG probably has a consumer frauds/protection bureau that will offer some kind of voluntary mediation process with the company. Often that's sufficient to jar money loose.

Contrary to what that lawyer may have lazily implied, there aren't really "magic words" that will get her off the hook, though. She should make sure she has clearly communicated her request in writing, so that there's no doubt about that in any future proceedings, but there's no incantation she can include that will force them to return the money.
posted by praemunire at 11:07 AM on July 25, 2017

IANYL. But she needs a lawyer. I'd ask the local bar for a referral. First mission for said lawyer would be to do the letter to get the money back.
posted by bearwife at 12:39 PM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

She should get a lawyer to draft a letter sent on the lawyer's stationary terminating the contract and asking for repayment. The lawyer can also parse the contract she signed.

If the demand for payment comes from her, no matter how it's worded, they'll ignore it as it seems they're already dodging her. They could even say she's the one in breach of the agreement.

Legalese, legal stationary, possible threat of legal action-- those get attention.

(I disagree with the advice to send medical documents to a boat dock company. She doesn't have to prove anything unless she's in court, and those records are confidential.)
posted by kapers at 1:05 PM on July 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would recommend starting nice as alex1965 suggests, appeal to their pity in good faith, and be prepared to offer a surrender of a good chunk of the down payment.

Your Aunt is in a difficult situation. If she signed a contract with them, then she is on the hook for the money, and maybe even the entire amount if it goes poorly. She cannot cancel any contract by writing "cancelled" on it unless there is a loophole somewhere. What she can do is get legal advice to fine-tooth comb the contract and see if the dockers have neglected any fine-print in her favor. If they provided the contract, it will tend to sway in their favor.

She does need a decent lawyer to advise on how to get to the best case scenario. I'm not so optimistic with the advice to just send a stern legalese letter and hope for the best, from the construction disputes that I've seen, if the contract is valid in their favor, then the money will not flow back, unless it can be proven otherwise. I ain't no lawyer and this ain't advice.
posted by ovvl at 9:24 PM on July 25, 2017

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