The Ultimate Legal Checklist for Freelance Professionals

Have clients, will freelance — it’s as easy as that to get started as a freelancer or contractor, right? Not quite. Before you agree to take on an assignment or project for a client, there are certain legal areas that need to be taken care of to ensure a mutually beneficial partnership. We’ve assembled a checklist of the top legal areas to make sure you’re covered before committing yourself to freelancing like a true professional.

Establish a contract in writing with your clients

Wait, how do I even begin to write one of these? What should I include in a contract to sound as official as possible? And why do I need one in writing? While every contract will vary a bit depending on the type of work you do with your clients, here are a few standard areas that should be covered:

  • Title, date and parties. Your contract should have a title, but this does not need to be overly complicated. A title as simple as “Independent Contractor Agreement” works fine. The opening sentences should include the date that the contract is effective, as well as the names of the parties involved, those being the client and yourself.
  • Agree to properly perform certain specified services and define those services. If necessary, you can attach a separate form that details this a bit more in-depth.
  • Delivery of the works. This is where the freelancer agrees to complete his or her services in a satisfactory fashion within a timeline that has been agreed upon between both parties.
  • Consultant’s warranty. In the case of freelance writing especially, this ensures that the writing delivered to the client is not plagiarized, libelous in manner, or in violation of any property rights.
  • Name your pay. Clearly outline your rates per assignment, the manner in which you will be paid (generally done by submitting monthly invoices), and set expectations on the client for when they will make their payments. Typically, this is done within a set number of days after receiving the invoice.
  • Term and termination. If either party defaults under their obligations and are unable to remedy their actions within a specified timeline, the freelance agreement terms will be terminated. Beyond defaulting, note that the agreement may be terminated at any time by either party, as well. Outline procedures for what to do next should that happen, such as how any outstanding invoices will be paid back.

While this may sound like a lot of ground to cover, most contracts tend to be one to three pages in length. This is all standard procedure that is meant to protect you as a freelancer, so take your time when putting one together.

Submit your contract to the client and request that they physically sign and date the paperwork and send it back to you. Sign and date it from your end, then submit the contract back to them again. Print out and retain paper copies of the contract afterwards.

Fill out a W-9

If this is your first time freelancing with a client, they will request you fill out and submit Form W-9, Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification. This is a very simple form that only requires the name shown on your income tax return, the name of your business (if it differs from your own name, in which case you’ll want to register for a doing business as name [DBA]), along with your address, city, state and zip code.

You will need to define your federal tax classification. Unless you have already incorporated your business, many freelancers will mark this as “individual” in the box for “individual, sole proprietor, or single-member LLC.” You must also include your social security number, or you have the option to use an employer identification number (EIN) if you have filed and registered for one. Sign and date the document and send it along to the client once you’re done.

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Determine what types of licenses or permits you’ll need

Some contract work may require business licenses and permits in order to legally operate. Your location, industry and line of work will ultimately factor into determining which business licenses are required by your city or state, so do your research to make sure you have the proper licenses before you start doing any business.

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