Why you need to have a freelance contract: Freelancers share how they got burned for not sending freelance contracts

Neglecting to send a freelance contract was one of my rookie mistakes in my first year of freelancing. I experienced time wastage, delay in payment, scope creeps, reneging of agreements, and burnout from predatory clients.

Everything changed when I discovered the importance of sending freelance contracts before starting any freelance project. A freelance contract serves as a protection, direction, and an agreement that brings clarity to any new project.

Like me, many freelancers have been burned due to lack of contract. So, I reached out to a few of them to help share their stories and lessons.

This piece highlights what happens when you don't have a freelance contract, the importance of sending one to all clients, and the critical details that should be included in your contract.

"My invoice did not get paid for months."

Luciano Viterale
Freelance experience: Three years

What happened?

"I have been burned a couple of times for not having or sending freelance contracts to clients. One of my first freelance gigs was done on a handshake agreement, and a basic scope of work document. I had no process for accepting payments, terms, etc." 

When did you notice the red flags?

"Once I completed the work, my invoice did not get paid for months. I contacted the client numerous times, and they dodged it or forgot about it."

Lesson: "Thankfully I’ve learned from my mistakes. For all new clients, I require 50% upfront and I use Zoho Sign to sign and send freelance contracts."

"I got nothing. No equity. No employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). No notice, period."

Tina Morales
Freelance experience
: Five years 

What happened?

"I joined this startup as a key partner—not an employee but a freelancer on retainer when the company had just three people. In the beginning, things were chaotic but the founders seemed to actually stand by their values and what they say (equal treatment, open communication, etc).
"We grew to about 40 people remotely, most freelancing and most part-time. And there, it became hectic! I still believed in the partners wanting to do the right thing. A new partner later joined and there were subtle cultural changes." 

When did you notice the red flags?

"People first became inefficient unless it impacted the business. Product scope became narrower and narrower, only chasing the most revenues.
"We started having performance issues with some people in the team, and I realized that open communication was not there. The team members were not given feedback on the issues till they suddenly got fired." 

Lesson: "I naively thought that being a partner and early executive member meant that the draft contract (not finalized) meant something. I should have left then, or at least realized I was being more and more left out. From a key partner to make sure we look diverse enough, and take care of the low paying clients."

"Payment issues crept in some months after, and because there was no legal agreement in place, things didn't go well."

Olamide Abe
Freelance experience
: Two years

What happened?

"I got played by a company I contracted for. I didn't send a contract, so I expected a contract from them but they didn't send me any contract. I asked other team members about a contract, and they said they didn't sign a contract, either. So I gullibly continued because it was a startup.

"Payment issues crept in some months after, and because there was no legal agreement in place, things didn't go well."

When did you notice the red flags?

"It started when the CEO said he would cut down on the pay.  Payment issues crept in some months after, and because there was no legal agreement in place, things didn't go well."

Lesson: "They treated me badly. I should have sent or asked for a contract at the beginning. They kept postponing sending the contract, and I doubt they had one anyway."

"We had previously agreed on a call for three content pieces a month. They started demanding eight content pieces a month while delaying the invoice."

Sakshi Jha 
Freelance experience: Two years

What happened? 

"A company's marketing head contacted me through LinkedIn, asked for my samples, and we decided to work together. My biggest mistake was not asking for or sending a contract. We had previously agreed over a call for three pieces a month, but they started demanding eight pieces a month."

When did you notice the red flags? 

"I was forced to deliver long-form blogs, and was given hundreds of edits each time. I was paid a month after the date I sent the invoice."

Lesson: "I stopped working for this client after two months, and they kept my invoice pending for another month before it was cleared. That was when I decided that no matter what, I will get a contract. I won't work with any client who refuses to sign a freelance contract."

"I went through six rounds of edits over two weeks on a single 1,000 word article because the client kept changing their mind about what they wanted."

Zulie Rane
Freelance experience
: Three years

What happened? 

"A few years ago, I would write content for anyone who hired me based on a few emails, which caused a few issues before I learned my lesson. I had one client who I thought would be problem-free. They paid me up front. They were communicative over email. The content they wanted was simple and straightforward."

When did you notice the red flags?

"When we got to the edit/feedback phase. I went through six rounds of edits over two weeks on a single 1,000 word article because the client kept changing their mind about what they wanted.

"They would ask for one change, I would make it. They would show the CEO, then the CEO would decide they wanted to go in a different direction.

"Eventually, I told them they could get one more round of edits before I’d draw a line and consider the work complete. They got a little annoyed at that, but at that point I was willing to refund them if they’d really kicked off, just to get them off my plate."

Lesson: "Today, I include a two-round maximum for edits on any piece I handle. I find it makes my clients much more conscious about the edits they ask for."

"I didn't have a clause on late payment in my contract and I wish I did so I could enforce some type of late fee."

Dana Nicole  
Freelance experience: Five years

What happened? 

"I've always had a contract but wanted to share my perspective about not having the right contents within a contract. I had a client who was severely late on payment multiple times.

"First time I let it slide, as I didn't want to burn bridges. Second time I was mad, and at the point where I no longer wanted to continue the relationship. I didn't have a clause on late payment in my contract and I wish I did so I could enforce some type of late fee." 

When did you notice the red flags?

"The red flags were there from the start but they were very small and easy for someone to ignore/overlook. For example, I wasn't given access to the resources I needed to properly do my job.

"The company didn't seem to place a high value on content marketing, so it's not surprising that they then didn't place value on paying their writers in a timely manner."

Lesson: "Having a freelance contract is good, but having the right clauses in your freelance contract is better. Those clauses limit clients' irresponsibilities."

What is the importance of having a freelance contract?

Though people argue that freelance contracts aren't enforceable internationally, Zoho Sign offers legal compliance across borders. Let's walk through the benefits of a freelance contract.

1. Protects against disputes 
A freelance contract is evidence of a contractual relationship between a client and a freelancer. If any party goes against an agreement, the other party can enforce the contract in court. A freelance contract ensures that both parties keep to their parts of the deal.

Tip: Be wary of any client who wants to avoid signing a freelance contract. It's an obvious sign that they won't keep to the agreement.

2. Outlines job descriptions
A valid freelance contract states everything the job entails. That way, the freelancer and the client know the demands and objectives of the contract. The job description section defines the project's scope in case any party wants to renege on the agreed scope.

By using a freelance contract, freelancers are well-rested, and clients' expectations stay within the agreed-upon duties and responsibilities.

Tip: Spell out both parties' duties and responsibilities to the T. Avoid making bogus statements that portray a different job description.

3. Emphasizes the terms of payment
When it comes to money, you've got to protect your interests by creating a freelance contract. Payment issues result from lack of a freelance contract, or if the terms of payment weren't properly communicated in the contract itself.

Your freelance contract should emphasize the following terms of payment:

  1. How much you're charging for the project
  2. Means of payment
  3. Whether you are taking upfront payments
  4. Payment deadline
  5. Penalties for defaulting or delaying payments
  6. Refund clause (if you have any)

Tip: Be sure that you and the client are on the same page with the prices, mode of payment, penalty charges, and payment due dates.

4. Ensures parties are aware of copyright ownership
A detailed freelance contract should contain copyright ownership. The purpose is to enable both parties to understand who owns what during and after the project. If a client fully owns the project, you should state it in the contract to prevent back-and-forth communication or even lawsuits.

Tip: Assumptions breed confusion. Both parties should be clear on copyright ownership.

5. Easy to prove in court
Unlike verbal agreements, freelance contracts are easier to prove in court. I once made the mistake of not sending a freelance contract to a client. Upon completion of the project, the client reneged on our agreement.

I had to involve a lawyer to determine my next course of action. The first question the lawyer asked me was if the client signed a freelance contract. I had WhatsApp chats to back up my claims, but my lawyer said a contract would be easily proven. Eventually, we settled out of court, but that was a big lesson for me.

Tip: Archive every email or chat with a client. They help back your claim, whether you have a freelance contract or not.

What should be in a freelance contract?
It is one thing to have a freelance contract, and it is another thing to have a strong contract with the correct information and clauses. Here are crucial details that make up a freelance contract:

1. Contact information
Add your name, client's name, office address, phone number, and email address in the contact information section.

2. Job description
Under the job description, you have the roles and responsibilities of both parties. It's a section of a freelance contract that emphasizes the services you are rendering to the client. Include the client's roles and responsibilities to clearly set out their part in the project.

3. Terms of payment 
In this section, you state how much you charge for the project, bonuses, and commissions. It's essential to make known the means through which you will receive the payment. Most importantly, remember to add your late payment clause if the client defaults on payment.

4. Deadline
Deadlines are the turnaround times for freelance projects. You must include the exact deadline for the project. If there's an extension date, you can add it to the contract as well.

5. Copyright
Explain who owns the project. What you and the client agree on ownership-wise should be mentioned in this section of the contract. This helps avert ownership battles in the future.

6. Indemnification
Indemnification has to do with who bears a loss when there’s any. It’s crucial in a freelance contract to ensure that both parties understand their liabilities.

7. Tax
We don’t see tax in every freelance contract. But if you add your tax to your freelance charges, you can state it in the freelance contract. Many clients would like to know if they are covering the tax, so it's best to mention it in the indemnity section.

8. Emergency clause
An emergency clause is imperative due to unforeseen circumstances. It helps you buy time when something beyond your control affects the project. When you are sick, you can take time off from the project.

9. Termination clause
A termination clause in a freelance contract says how and when the freelance project ends. Other conditions that may lead to the termination of the contract should be stated.

10. Signatures and dates
Signatures and dates make the freelance contract legally binding.

Sign freelance contracts with Zoho Sign

Freelance contracts are necessary to protect both parties in a freelance project. Zoho Sign is the user-friendly signature app freelancers use to sign and send freelance contracts to clients.

You can get started now with the Zoho Sign free plan, which allows you to sign five documents monthly for free.

About the author :  
Rosemary Egbo is a professional content marketer who specializes in creating reader-centered sales-generating content for SaaS and B2B brands.You can reach her on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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