9 Freelance Contract Essentials to Stay Safe and Get Paid on Time

Too many freelancers (particularly new ones) rush into working with clients without getting a freelance contract template signed and put into place.

Trust me, I know. It can be tempting to skip the “formalities” of getting a freelance contract signed by your busy client—especially if you’re just doing some consulting work for a mutual friend, or you’re in the midst of the excitement around landing your first big client. You just want to get to work and start getting paid.

However, not getting even a quick & easy freelance contract (like my free freelance contract template you can grab right here) signed before starting your project can be a potentially devastating decision with far-reaching consequences.

To help you get started and avoid confusion with your clients, I’m giving away the actual freelance contract template I use when signing on new clients like LinkedIn, Zendesk, Intuit, Fundera, Close.io and more (for free).

Free Download: My Proven Freelance Contract Template

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In my experience since I started freelancing on the side several years ago, most freelance client relationships will continue on without any issues, but there's always the off chance that there'll be a miscommunication about something.

Without a freelance contract template in place within your business, you're leaving yourself open to non-payment, liability, and potential legal troubles.

I recommend reading this post all the way through from top to bottom, but if you prefer to jump around, here's a hyperlinked table of contents that'll take you straight to each clause you'll need in a freelance contract. And of course, you can grab my free template right here.

9 Freelance Contract Template Essentials to Stay Safe and Get Paid on Time

1. Clear Introductory Statement

2. Terms and Conditions

3. Scope of the Project

4. Changes and Revisions

5. Legal

6. Copyright

7. Payment

8. Termination

9. Signatures

Now, let's dive into this.

By having a freelance contract (agreement) in place before you start a project with a new client, you're making sure that both you and the company or individual hiring you, know exactly what your relationship entails—and that you're leaving no major room for grey area about what you'll be delivering.

It stands to reason that the best freelance contract template prevents potential disagreements and misunderstanding down the line, should your client change their expectations during your contract period, or in the event you deliver a piece of work that's not what they were expecting—in this event, a solid freelance contract template will keep both parties happy.

In this post, I'm going to walk through the essential elements every freelance contract template needs to include, whether you're a writer, designer, marketer, developer, consultant or otherwise. And I'll be pulling from the actual freelance contracts I've used for my freelance content marketing business for years, including deals like:

  •  An $80,000 agreement for 2 posts per month, that's continued for the past twelve months.

  •  Another contract that's translated into $17,500 for 7 blog posts so far.

  •  And the last one that solidified a $10,000/mo retainer contract for 4 posts per month.

Affiliate Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission. Know that I only recommend tools and services I personally use, test and believe are genuinely helpful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to purchase them.

Here's the real purpose of a freelance contract template.

Chances are, even without a freelance contract signed, you still know what your client's expecting from your new relationship—the exact work that needs to be completed, and in what timeframe.

Your client also probably knows your expectations of them, most importantly, how much they're agreeing to pay you for the work, and by when.

However, a freelance contract agreement solidifies these conversations that often take place over the phone or via long email threads, and removes any doubt, ambiguity or confusion.

A freelance contract also takes away the opportunity for the (in my experience, rare) unscrupulous party to claim they didn’t know what's expected of them.

And on top of these more obvious reasons, the sheer act of asking your client to sign a freelance contract with you—clarifying the details of your new working relationship—will give you a chance to fully qualify them and see if they're really 100% serious about kicking off the project you've agreed to.

If they're not ready to sign a binding contract that states how much they'll pay you, when, and for which deliverables, then my advice—like the business advice many entrepreneurs have shared with me—is to not work with them at all.

Run for the hills, especially if you have no mutual connection to the potential client (like if you started the dialogue from a cold email campaign and don't really know anything about them).

Better yet, find a client that does respect and trust you enough to sign a freelance contract with you.

Freelance Contract Essentials find a client who trusts and respects

If you don't get a freelance contract signed, you'll only open yourself up to the (very real) risk of non-payment after delivering work or running into misunderstandings about deliverables.

Plus, when you have a client who's Skyping you in the middle of the night, demanding a third set of revisions before they pay you, or changing instructions and requirements the day before the project's due, you'll be glad you got a freelance contract signed that stipulates timelines and costs for additional revisions & requests.

Even if you do get your client to sign a freelance contract and things still end up going south, you'll stand a much better chance of effectively suing the client that won't pay up, keeping in mind that litigation comes with it's own new set of costs, risks, and time.

But, you don't want to go overboard on your freelance contract either.

The last thing you want to do is send a potential client a 20-page freelance contract, however.

You won't get very far sending multiple pages of legalese that covers every conceivable possibility, whether the scenario is likely or not, and it'll only add more friction between you and getting your client to sign on the dotted line.

That's why I personally use DocuSign to send out my freelance contracts.

Instead of sending a freelance contract to my new client in just a simple Google Doc format where they'll need to insert a signature file (or print, sign, and scan it back into a new document), DocuSign allows me to upload this exact contract I use, then send it to my clients in a manner that lets them quickly sign with just one click.

And seriously, I can't recommend DocuSign enough. They even have a free 30 day trial you can sign up for right now and if you end up liking it, upgrading to the full version only costs $2/mo. It's seriously a steal for how much easier it makes getting my freelance contracts signed.

Regardless of the tools you're using, there are a few freelance contract essentials that you need to include to make your life easier.

Free Download: Grab My Freelance Contract Template

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Disclaimer: Be sure to adapt my freelance contract to meet your own unique needs. This post pulls from the actual contract I use in my business (that has been constructed and tweaked with legal help over the years), but I'm not an attorney and this post should not be interpreted as legal advice.

Given the specifics of your line of work, you may want to include other possible clauses that make life easier for you, help protect your type of business, and attract the types of clients you want.

With all of this in mind, we're going to dive into the essential elements every good freelance contract needs to cover.

9 Freelance Contract Template Essentials to Stay Safe and Get Paid (On Time)

This freelance contract intentionally contains only the most important elements that'll help you get started today.

1. Clear Introductory Statement to Your Freelance Contract Template.

This section is pretty self-explanatory, as it simply introduces the main parties to the contractor agreement and offers a very short overview of the agreement.

Freelance Contract Heading and Basic Details

For simplicity sake, this section of the freelance contract also establishes the "Client" and "Contractor" designations so that both parties will be referred to as such throughout the rest of the agreement.

Next, your short overview should describe what, in general terms, you'll be doing for the client.

Here's an example of a full introductory statement pulled from a recent freelance contract with a new client of mine:

Ryan Robinson (also known as “Contractor”) will provide Planio GmbH, (also known as “Client”) with blog posts and reasonable promotion/distribution as to the specifications detailed in the Terms and Conditions below.

Simple and concise, that's it.

You'll spell out the specific details of your agreement later on in the Terms and Conditions below.

Finally, you'll want to include a mutually agreed upon start date for the commencement of your freelance contract—when you'll begin doing the actual work for your client.

I usually establish this future start date over a phone conversation (or email) when finalizing the details of what my client needs and when I can handle getting started.

Otherwise, your start date can be the day your client signs the freelance contract.

Bottom line, there’s no need to get too detailed in this section—just the essentials.

The purpose of your introductory statement is to ensure that you know who you're working with, and that both parties understand the general purpose of the relationship (expectations), so nobody gets an unwelcome surprise.

2. Terms and Conditions.

As a freelancer, you can't afford to allow any confusion about key expectations with your client relationships, whether they're tasks you're expected to do, or items you expect to receive from the client (that help you accomplish your job).

This is the section of your freelance contract agreement that clearly lays out these expectations.

Freelance Contract Template Essentials terms and conditions ryrob Ryan Robinson

Begin your Terms and Conditions by establishing what you want from your client—principally what the agreed level of payment is, how it should be paid, and when payment is due.

Ideally, you'll have already agreed to a freelance contract arrangement that gets you paid by the job (or deliverable), rather than by the hour—especially if you're running your freelance business on the side of other employment—you're a contractor after all, not an hourly wage earner.

By having your payment rate specified clearly at the top of this section, you can avoid any potential disagreement afterward, should your client try and pay a lesser amount once the work is complete.

If you and the client agree to an upfront deposit, followed by one or more progress payments on the way to your final deliverable, these milestones should be outlined and specified here, too.

The next part of this section is very important: Your deliverables.

This is where you'll bullet-point out specific details about what you're agreeing to provide the client, and when you promise to deliver them by.

Freelance Contract Template Example Terms and Conditions ryrob Ryan Robinson

This section does need to be in sufficient detail—enough so that there's no grounds for confusion.

For instance, if you're a freelance writer engaged in crafting a blog post for a client on a particular topic, you should specify here what the post is about, an approximate word count, and the day that it is due for delivery to the client.

You may wish to break the project up and include milestones along the way for larger projects, particularly if there are likely to be different delivery dates for different sections of the project—like a series of blog posts.

Depending on your freelance specialty, you may need to include details about how you'll deliver your work too.

For example, which file format—delivery as a PDF vs Word document or a JPEG vs Adobe Illustrator source file can be drastically different from the client's perspective. You could promise to provide both electronic and paper versions of your end product.

Many freelance writers and content marketers may promise to provide extras to their clients on top of just the writing services, such as social promotion, a few relevant Quora answers linking back to the original post, meta descriptions, and pitches to publications for coverage.

If you include these kinds of add-on services (like I do with my content marketing consulting), specify them in this section of your freelance contract agreement.

3. Scope of the Project.

One of the more frustrating elements of freelancing can be scope creep on a project.

Scope creep is when you and your client agree for you to perform a particular task, but the client asks for extra tasks, add-ons, or an unreasonable number of revisions as you progress through the project.

Freelance Contract Template ryrob scope creep Ryan Robinson

If you get along well with your client, chances are that you probably won’t mind doing a little bit extra to make the project turn out that much more awesome—but there's often a fine line here.

Before long, you can realize that you've a ton of extra work for free.

If you don’t establish clear guidelines around the scope of your project within your freelance contract, you don’t have any real evidence to prove that the agreed upon deliverables have indeed changed.

By defining the scope, you can also establish a set ending point for this freelance contract.

Once you've performed all of the tasks within the scope of your project, you've technically performed your part of the freelance contract. If your client wants you to perform other work, then they need to set up a new contract for that additional work, not just expect it to be done as part of the initial contract.

Be prepared to change your price (or provide an additional estimate) if you're asked to do anything outside the agreed upon scope of the original project.

Remember, you're working with your client, not for your client, so they can't expect you to perform for free.

4. Changes and Revisions.

Closely related to what's outlined in the scope of your project, this is another section where it's up to you to spell out how you'll be dealing with requested changes, revisions or additions to your original freelance contract.

Personally, I like to use very friendly wording here too...

Freelance Contract Essentials ryrob changes and revisions

Thankfully, most clients are perfectly reasonable people.

They may want the occasional change based on circumstances that have shifted on their end, but the majority of freelance clients (in my experience) will not expect multiple edits and revisions beyond what's already expected.

However there are some very picky people out there—often the perfectionists—who never seem satisfied, and consistently want you to change your work. For free, of course.

Common sense rules how you deal with changes and revisions.

If a client wants a minor, sensible change to design or article that's not going to add much to your time or expenses for the project, there's no reason why you can’t accommodate their wishes.

On the other hand, some clients are not particularly certain themselves about what they want.

This clause is especially important to protect yourself from this type of client who's prone to changing the entire direction of the project when you're halfway through it—which is obviously disastrous to your workflow.

My standard freelance contract agreement allows clients to make changes if they wish, but they'll have to pay for it if the requested changes come after I've commenced work on the specific deliverable.

If you're halfway through a project that has to be abandoned in order to follow a change in direction, this clause makes it very clear that they'll still have to pay for the work you have already done.

However, there are some situations when editing is commonplace (and indeed expected).

In these situations, I'd include a phrase stating that your quote includes one edit (or x number of edits) within a set number of days of delivery.

5. Legal.

Again, I’m not an attorney, but I've learned and consulted with several attorneys over the years about how to legally protect myself while doing freelance work on the side of full-time employment.

Freelance Contract Template Signature Section ryrob Ryan Robinson

While I've been fortunate enough never to have been stiffed on payments by a deadbeat client (yet) or make any disastrous mistakes that warranted close examination of my freelance contract with the client, the first place I'd turn in one of these two events is the legal section of my contract.

The legal section of your freelance contract needs to protect you from the 1 in 100 situations (hopefully less frequently) when the unexpected does happen and something goes wrong with your client relationship.

Freelance Contract Template Legal Protection Section ryrob Ryan Robinson

You'll see in my freelance contract template that I've included a few sentences that indemnify me from a broad range of consequences a client may believe they suffer from as a result of my work—the work they've approved and hired me to do.

I also include a clause stating that if any part of this contract is not written with enough legalese to stand up in a court of law, then that won’t affect the remaining provisions of the freelance contract.

You don’t want your entire freelance contract to be thrown out on some legal technicality you're unaware of.

6. Copyright.

Freelance Contract Template Copyright Laws

One of the more interesting features of US copyright law (that freelancers should read and pay attention to) is the portion about Works Made For Hire, as the copyright law itself even says, "The concept of 'work made for hire' can be complicated."

In a nutshell, Works Made For Hire states that if a client contracts a freelancer to produce work, and nothing is said about copyright ownership in any agreement, then the copyright actually belongs to the creator, not the person who pays for the work to be done.

So as a freelancer (if you do work without any agreements in place), even if that is a paid project, you actually own the copyright to that work unless you otherwise release it to the client.

Seems kind of weird in this context, right?

Well, that's why any savvy client will know about this quirk in copyright law, so if you don’t have a provision allowing for this in your freelance contract, expect the client to ask you to sign their version of a copyright release at some point down the line.

Plus, it's in your best interest to proactively address this in your freelance contract (like I do with my template). You don't want your new client to feel like you're trying to pull a fast one on them.

Freelance Contracts Copyright Protection Clause ryrob Ryan Robinson

Short and simple will do, all you need is to establish clear ownership transfer of the work you create—after you're paid for creating it.

There is of course, one exception I like to include in all of my freelance contracts when it comes to the copyright section. As freelancers, we like to (need to) showcase our work in order to attract more clients and close more deals.

Hence, it does make sense to include a section in your freelance contract agreement that permits you to use work you've created for highlighting in your freelance portfolio, showcasing your skills, and even for use in a greater content marketing strategy that's designed to attract more clients.

7. Payment.

There's nothing worse than not getting paid for your hard work as a freelancer.

Or having that payment delayed because the client wants to pay you through some complicated combination of money transferring services.

Freelance Contract Template Payment Clause ryrob Ryan Robinson

We freelancers, like everybody else, have bills to pay.

Whether you're freelancing full-time or taking a few contract gigs on the side of your day job, your freelance income is self-employed income. And you probably have plans for that income—savings, keeping the bills paid, affording the next family trip, investing or otherwise.

Not having clear payment terms stipulated in your freelance contract leaves room for clients to delay payment. Here's the section about payments I include in my freelance contracts:

Freelance Contract Template Payment Terms in Agreement ryrob Ryan Robinson

This kind of payment (once per month) works best for me, but you may want to stipulate more payments spread out across the month or otherwise depending upon your type of work.

You can also stipulate that payment be made on a shorter (or longer) timeline after you've invoiced the client.

But without clear expectations around payment, it can make budgeting extremely difficult, and your income unpredictable at best.

You can get paid a couple of thousand dollars one week, and only $50 the next.

If you don’t specify when you expect your clients to make payment, then they can choose to pay you whenever they want, rather than when you want them to.

You may also choose to clearly state (or list out) acceptable payment methods in this section too.

8. Termination.

This is your emergency eject button.

A termination clause allows either party to exit the freelance contract, in the event the relationship is clearly not working out for any reason.

I've seen cases where freelancers have had ongoing contracts they've worked on for a year or more, that have suddenly come to a halt with a one-line email from their client (or even just a complete drop off in response), stating that the work is over with—today.

At least with a termination clause written into your freelance contract, you have a little more time to prepare for the future loss of income if a project gets suddenly axed.

It also gives you and your client an exit clause for longer-term contracts that have worked out well, but are now either winding down or possibly, because of changing external events, need to be wrapped up.

Perhaps you've decided to move in a different direction with your freelance business, for instance.

9. Signatures.

It wouldn’t be a freelance contract without the signatures of both the freelancer and the client.

Freelance Contract Template Signature Section ryrob Ryan Robinson

You're now at the finish line, and as the great Anais Nin said in one of my favorite motivational quotes, "Great things happen to those who hustle."

So, it's time to hustle through and get your freelance contract template signed.

You may choose to do this digitally (which I recommend) using an easy one-click signature tool like DocuSign.

Or you can get their signatures directly within the Google Document, via email with scanned signatures, or by mail.

Personally, I use DocuSign for getting electronic signatures, which makes finalizing freelance contracts with clients in different geographic locations as easy as possible.

If a freelancer is given a standard contractor agreement by a client they have to be careful to ensure they know what they are signing. Some contacts have very nasty one-sided clauses in them. For instance, some firms include restrictions that stop you from writing for anybody else. This puts a freelance writer who normally works with a range of clients, in a highly dependent and precarious position.

By getting in first and providing the contractor agreement for a deal between you and your client, you have an opportunity to ensure that the terms are fair and not one-sided. It also makes you look professional.

Free Download: My Proven Freelance Contract Template

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Grab my free downloadable freelance contract template and learn the fundamentals of crafting a simple, bulletproof freelance contract for your clients.


Ryan Robinson

Writer, side project aficionado, and part-time entrepreneur. Join me here, on ryrob.com and learn how to start a business while working full-time. Let’s chat on Twitter about business and side projects.

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