Why Construction Subcontractors Should Avoid “Pay When Paid” Contracts

Web Admin - Thursday, February 28, 2019
Rolling Meadows civil litigation attorney breach of contractAs a construction subcontractor, you need to be careful about how your contracts are written, or you could expose yourself to substantial risk of non-payment. One particular clause to watch out for when signing a subcontractor construction contract is the clause which specifies the circumstances of payment, also known as a payment contingency clause. This provision may take the form of either “pay when paid” or “pay if paid,” and there is a meaningful legal difference between the two.

What Is a “Pay When Paid” Clause in a Construction Contract?

It is a generally accepted practice in the construction industry that a subcontractor gets paid only after the general contractor gets paid by the property developer. If a project developer fails to pay the general contractor on time or at all, the subcontractor is also at risk of being paid late or not at all, depending on how their contract is written.

Most state courts, including Illinois, have ruled that a “pay when paid” clause does not excuse the general contractor from paying subs in the event that the property developer does not pay the general contractor. Rather, a “pay when paid” clause may be interpreted as merely specifying an approach for the timing of payments, i.e., the number of days between the time when the general contractor receives payment from the property developer and distributes payments to subcontractors.

In contrast, a “pay if paid” clause is interpreted by the courts as meaning that subcontractors will not be paid unless and until the general contractor is paid by the property developer. This shifts the risk of non-payment from the general contractor to the subcontractor. As long as the contract language is precisely written and makes it clear that the subcontractor accepts the risk that they will not be paid if the general contractor is not paid, the courts will enforce a “pay if paid” clause. If there is any ambiguity, the courts could order payment to a subcontractor even if the general contractor is not paid.

Why Should Construction Subcontractors Object to “Pay If Paid” and “Pay When Paid” Contracts?

Because the general contractor controls access to the work, they often have the leverage to demand that subcontractors accept contingent payment clauses in their contracts. However, if you are a subcontractor, it is not in your best interests to accept a “pay if paid” or “pay when paid” clause in your contracts. You are legally obligated to pay for all of your equipment and labor expenses, so you need to protect your right to be paid by the general contractor in a timely manner. 

Because they are in direct contact with the property developer, the general contractor has a greater ability than a subcontractor to assess the property developer’s finances and ability to pay. Therefore, it is only right that the general contractor should bear the risk of late payment or non-payment by the developer.

Contingent payment clauses can make it harder for you to obtain payment if the property developer breaches their contract with the general contractor. Because your contract is with the general contractor, you have no standing to sue the property developer for failure to pay. Your only recourse is typically to secure a mechanic’s lien against the property developer. The Illinois mechanic’s lien act, 770 ILCS 60/21(e), specifically protects your right as a subcontractor to file a lien even if your contract with the general contractor has a payment contingency clause. 

Consult a Palatine Construction Contracts Lawyer

It is far more cost-effective in the long run to have a lawyer review your contracts before you sign them rather than to sue someone for breach of contract after a deal goes bad or to go after money owed to you by obtaining a mechanic’s lien. Call an experienced Arlington Heights civil litigation attorney at 847-934-6000 for a free initial consultation about your current legal needs. At Drost, Gilbert, Andrew & Apicella, LLC, we have the experience in both contract law and real estate law to support a wide range of legal needs for real estate developers and construction companies. 

About the Author: Attorney Jay Andrew is a founding partner of Drost, Gilbert, Andrew & Apicella, LLC. He is a graduate of the University of Dayton School of Law and has been practicing in estate planning, probate, trust administration, real estate law, residential/ commercial leasing, contracts, and civil litigation. Since 2005, Jay has been a Chair of the Mock Trial Committee for the Annual Northwest Suburban Bar Association High School Mock Trial Invitation which serves over 240 local Illinois students each year.


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