Freelance writer shaking the hand of a client.

Why a Kill Fee Clause is Important for Freelance Writers

Lindsay Pietroluongo
5 min readDec 15, 2022

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There are a lot of guidelines you should have in place before moving forward with a freelance writing project — and most of them revolve around making sure you get paid (and get paid on time). 💰

Some writers won’t even consider working with a client without a contract. I’m not one of them, but I do have requirements, and I’m pretty rigid about making sure they’re met.

For example, I prefer to communicate as much as possible via email. And if a phone call does take place, I send a recap email so that everything’s in writing and both parties have it.

Every freelancer decides on the best way to do business for themselves. If you’re worried about getting ripped off by a client, try using a kill fee. You can always change your requirements in the future if you find out it’s not for you.

Why I Don’t Use Contracts Anymore

For a long time, I required a contract before I started on a project. A handful of potential clients put up a fight and I had to turn down the work. Most of the time, though, it wasn’t an issue.

But it was a pain.

I’ve used contracts in the past, and they didn’t stop clients from breaking them.

Since a lot of people will sign a contract without thoroughly reading it, I’ve found that guidelines are less clear with the use of a contract. Having a shorter list of terms or talking to the client directly about what to expect has worked out better for me over time.

What I Use Instead of a Contract

In the place of a contract, I have standard guidelines that I adapt and email to each client, plus a PayPal agreement. A main component of the PayPal Terms and Conditions is a kill fee.

What is a Kill Fee?

A kill fee is money that you retain from a project if the client cancels or rejects your work. Kill fees are common in the publishing world, but I think they have their place amongst freelance copywriters and content writers, too.

That’s assuming you haven’t broken any rules yourself, like not delivering the project on time or ignoring the client’s requests for revisions. You can’t force the client to pay what they promised if you don’t do your part.

Kill fees are usually a percentage of the total cost of the project. However, if you’re charging a flat fee, you could use a dollar amount for the kill fee.

How I Use a Kill Fee

I have a 50% kill fee. That’s higher than the industry standard, but it’s more than reasonable for a freelancer, if you ask me.

That means that if the client rejects the work or cancels the project, I will refund 50% of what was paid, and I will also retain the rights to the work.

The client gets half their money back; the other half of their payment covers the work I’ve already done; and they cannot use any of the work I did for them.

Charging the Full Payment Upfront

Many freelancers either charge nothing upfront or ask for a partial payment, but I typically require the total amount before I even put the project on my calendar.

There are plenty of good reasons to charge for work upfront, and getting your kill fee is only one of them.

If you were to charge for the project upon acceptance, and then the client rejects all or part of the work, you’d have to chase them for half of the agreed upon payment. Good luck getting any money for something they’re not happy with and can’t use.

PayPal Invoice With Terms and Conditions

I have a mini “contract” built into my PayPal invoice. According to a conversation I had with a PayPal rep, when a customer pays an invoice, they automatically agree to whatever you’ve listed in the Terms and Conditions section.

That doesn’t mean the client won’t put up a fight if they’re unhappy with something. However, PayPal is more likely to be on your side if the client asks for a refund for something you’ve stated you won’t refund in the Terms and Conditions. 😅

I’ve Never Had to Enforce My Kill Fee…

A couple of times, I’ve given a 100% refund and retained the rights to the work — which is totally fair since the client didn’t pay anything in the end.

I’ve also offered the 50% kill fee refund, clearly explaining that the client doesn’t get to use the work. The client’s always opted to continue working with me, and we’ve respectfully parted ways once they received a project they were satisfied with.

…But I’ve Negotiated Hard to Keep My Kill Fee

One time, I was ready to turn down a great opportunity with a marketing agency because they asked me to lower my kill fee, along with a few other adjustments to my requirements. The kill fee was non-negotiable, and they ended up agreeing to it. 🏆

The True Value of Kill Fees

My personal feeling about kill fees is similar to how I feel about other business agreements and contracts:

It’s not in place in case something goes wrong (though it’ll help). Instead, it’s there to prevent something from going haywire.

Having a kill fee communicates, “I operate professionally. Don’t take advantage of me.” 💪

It tells clients that they need to have their ish together before hiring me for a project. Why? Because they won’t get their money back or have anything to show for what they spent if they screw around.

The Kill Fee Isn’t Permission To Do a Bad Job

If you’re going to use a kill fee, remember this:

It’s there for you to retain the client, not keep the pay and the project while the client unhappily goes on their way.

When a not-yet-satisfied client asks for a refund, you can point to your kill fee and remind them of its details. The hope is that they get over the decision they were about to make and cooperate with you so you can finish the project in a way that makes them happy.

As the wonderful, talented professional you are, you want to reasonably deal with this type of setback and give the client a project they’ll be able to use. Even if you vow to never work with them again in the future.

You’re going to want these 3 free email templates, created for freelance writers who know their worth. Download it now for zero dollars.

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Lindsay Pietroluongo

Essays. Disney travel tips for couples. Freelance writing advice. Pop culture musings. Random friendship and fitness reflections.