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Starting a Freelance Business – How to Take Care of Legal, Tax and Contractual Paperwork

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Starting a Freelance Business – How to Take Care of Legal, Tax and Contractual Paperwork

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: July 18, 2012 Updated: September 23, 2016

If you are new to freelancing or thinking of becoming a freelancer, you’ll no doubt have lots of questions, especially about the legal and regulatory paperwork you need to obtain and manage throughout the business year.

Freelancing, particularly if you are unincorporated, is one of the least paperwork-intensive forms of business ownership. Nevertheless, you are still a business and you need to be sure you have the right licenses or permits, make estimated tax payments on time, report your earnings each year, and deal with client paperwork such as contracts, non-disclosure agreements, and more.

To help you stay on top of your obligations, here’s a breakdown of key legal and regulatory processes, plus important “business-ready” documentation you’ll need when dealing with new clients.

Legal and Regulatory “Must-Dos”

Here’s what you’ll need to do to ensure you set up and manage your freelance business legally:

1. Get the Right Licenses and Permits – All businesses need some form of license or permit to operate in their state, county or city. In all likelihood, your freelance business is operated out of your home. So you may need a Home Occupancy Permit and a General Business License. You can get both from your local government website. Or simply use SBA’s “Permit Me” online tool for information about the licenses or permits you may need. Be sure to obtain these before you start doing any business.

2. Register Your Business Name – If you want to name your business anything other than your given name, then you’ll need to register a “Doing Business As” name with your local government. This guide explains how. If you use your own name, skip this step.

3. Pay Estimated Taxes – This one often comes as a surprise to freelancers, who may be used to having their taxes withheld by an employer. As a freelancer, it’s your responsibility to pay Uncle Sam and your state revenue agency almost as soon as you earn income each quarter. If you expect to owe $1,000 or more when you file your annual return, then you must pay estimated taxes on income. For information on how to calculate and make your payments, read: How To Calculate and Make Estimated Tax Payments.

4. Complete a W-9 Form When You Get a New Client – When you ink an agreement or start work with a new client, it’s likely they will ask you to complete IRS Form W-9 (you may have to ask them for it). Filling out a W-9 is straightforward: provide your name and social security number, or “Doing Business As” name. The client holds this form and doesn’t send it to the IRS; it’s a formal certification by you that your tax ID (SSN) is correct. The form also asks if you are subject to backup withholding – most taxpayers are exempt.

5. Annual Tax Reporting: The 1099 Form – If you’ve earned more than $600 in a year from a client, they have to report these payments to the IRS through Form 1099-Misc. Your client will send you a copy by the end of January each year. Be sure it’s accurate – does the amount the client stated they paid you match your records? You don’t have to do anything with the form other than it in your records and use it as a reference when you report your annual income to the IRS.  Think of it as the freelancer’s equivalent of the W-2 form.

I’ve deliberately excluded incorporation as a “must-do” legal and regulatory step for freelancers. Incorporation isn’t a legal must-do. While it has its benefits, it can also have cost disadvantages. To help you decide if incorporation is right for you take a look at SBA’s Incorporating your Business.

Essential “Business-Ready” Documentation for Freelancers

Here’s a list of some of the day-to-day documentation and paperwork that you will likely need or encounter as a freelancer:

1. Cost Estimate and Proposal Documents – Give your business a professional touch by creating your own branded template for project quotes and proposals. You can pay a graphic designer to create many of your basic business documents and graphics, or use freely available templates in software such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs. Sites such as FreelanceSwitch also offer free templates and resources.

2. Contract Documents and NDAs – Most clients will have their own contracts in place for independent contractors or freelancers. Be sure to read through the terms with a fine tooth comb. Don’t be afraid to question anything that doesn’t make sense or is irrelevant. The Non-Disclosure Agreement or NDA is usually included and is pretty standard. It requires you to agree to the client’s legal rights for protecting company knowledge or information you may have access to during the course of business, as well as intellectual rights relating to the work you produce.

If your client doesn’t present you with a contract, you may wish to protect your own interests by producing your own.

3. Statement of Work – Even if you have a client contract in place, many clients will also ask for individual statements of work (SOW) for each project. It’s a good idea to volunteer one even if they don’t ask for it. A SOW is a project-specific agreement outlining the mutually agreed scope of work and the timeframe for its completion. It sets expectations, deliverables, and the price. It may also include information on resources needed for the project, including roles and responsibilities on both sides. The secret to a good SOW is to avoid being vague – if it’s too broad and non-specific, you may end up with a dispute.  Once the SOW is agreed and signed, you are ready to begin the project.

Got questions? Post them below.

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About the Author:

Caron Beesley


Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley


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Hello, I just graduated high school about 3 months ago and am in college studying to be part of the entertainment industry. I want to start freelance work as a writer, graphic designer, and video editor. Does anyone know what licenses I would need? I've looked in the list this website provides but am still confused. Any answers will be appreciated!
Hi, Do I need a License to start a work from my home, which is helping people in filling out their immigration, welfare, insurance and rental applications Please advise
So I just graduated college a few months ago. Owning my own consulting firm is my dream job. But right now, I only want to do it part-time on a freelance basis in addition to my full-time job because I feel like it'd be less risky that way and I can build up a reputation. I plan on focusing on small businesses and start ups in my local area. So your article does help, but it also leaves me with a lot of questions. 1) I currently live with my parents, and plan on moving out soon, but I don't know when. Can I register the permit under my parents home now, and then switch it when I move out? Or would multiple locations in one tax year cause legal problems? 2) If I'm just starting out, how am I supposed to estimate the taxes I have to pay? I have no idea how many clients I'll get or what I'll charge them (because it'll be situational based on the job I assume). Or will I have to estimate taxes after each job and add that to that quarter's estimated taxes? 3) So I leave a W-9 form with my SSN on it with my client? Did I read that section wrong? Because that seems like a good way to get my identity stolen. 4) Based on what I've said and asked, would it make more sense for me to incorporate or something? I know this is now a 3 year old article, so if you read this and respond, it would be much appreciated. Thank you
Thanks Caron. Excellent information. I am a freelancer planning to consult for a US company. But, I don't live in the US any more and i don't have an US address. On your legal must dos, how do i get a permit.
Excellent information, Caron, Thank you. I need an inexpensive or free freelance/independent contractor contract document that will be valid in California. Will the "Project Team Operating Agreement" that comes with MS Word 2010 suffice for a general purpose contract? If no, where should I go, what should I get?
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