How To Pay an Independent Contractor

Payment Options and Withholding Requirements

A construction contractor smiles while writing figures in a spiral-bound ledger.

Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa / Getty Images

Paying an independent contractor is different from paying an employee. Learn the differences about payments, contracts, and taxes and more for contract workers your hire for your business.

Key Takeaways

  • An independent contractor is a worker or service provider that is not employed by a company, but performs on a contractual basis.
  • The IRS has clear rules about the classification of independent contractors and employess that employers should be aware of.
  • Independent contractors are responsible for paying their own employment taxes (Social Security and Medicare, along with income tax).
  • Hiring firms must report payments in excess of $600 to both the IRS and the contractor.

What Is an Independent Contractor?

An independent contractor is an independent business owner who does work for a company on a contract basis. Independent contractors include people who offer services to the general public.

The general rule is that someone is an independent contractor if the payer of this person has the right to control and direct only the result of the work done and not how it will be done. For example, if your business hires an independent contractor to install a new wireless network at your location, you can't tell them how to do the installation.


Independent contractors are considered self-employed, and they must pay self-employment tax (Social Security/Medicare tax) on their self-employment earnings.

The IRS has several ways to distinguish a worker as an independent contractor or employee, based on the amount of control over the work and the time of the worker. The type of work being done also has an effect on whether the worker is an employee or an independent contractor; for example, a salesperson might be either. The IRS looks at the general categories of behavioral control, financial control, and the nature of the relationship.

Some states have additional, more detailed, tests for determining independent contractor status. For example, California has an ABC test stating that the worker is an independent contractor only if all three of these conditions are met:

  1. The worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact.
  2. The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity's business.
  3. The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.


Federal and state regulations assume that a worker is an employee unless it's proven otherwise. Regulators review cases and make determinations on a case-by-case basis.

Before You Hire Your First Independent Contractor

Before you begin paying an independent contractor, you will need several documents:

For projects, you might want a written proposal outlining the work to be done.

Options for Paying an Independent Contractor

An independent contractor receives compensation in one of several methods, depending on the agreement set up between your company and the contractor:

  • Hourly: Some contractors get paid on an hourly basis; for example, a computer programmer might get paid for hours worked on programming tasks.
  • By the Job: The other payment alternative is to pay for the work done or by the job. For example, a cleaning service might get paid a set amount for cleaning your office.


A verbal contract is just as valid as a written contract, but it's always better to get the details of the pay in writing, to avoid miscommunication and difficulty proving a case in a lawsuit.

State laws determine when a contract must be in writing. One requirement that might apply to you is that a contract that extends over a year must be written not verbal.

Additional Terms to Add to a Payment Agreement

In addition to describing the pay type and amount, some other important terms should be included in a payment agreement or written contract for an independent contractor.

  • What form of payment (fee or hourly)?
  • How often is payment due? 
  • What's the amount?
  • Is there a minimum amount? Are there times when additional payments need to be made?
  • What are the "measureables" or milestones for payment? For example, a "by the job" pay agreement often includes specific deadlines for parts of the project. When the deadline is met, a specific amount of pay is released. 
  • What reports are due and when?
  • Are subcontractors allowed (people who work for the contractor)?
  • What if the work isn't done on time? 
  • What if payments are not made on time? 
  • What if the work isn't acceptable?

These payment terms are just as important as the payment amount, and they should be decided before the person begins work. 

Contractor Pay Withholding and Deductions

In most cases, you don't need to withhold Social Security/Medicare tax (called SECA tax) or federal or state income tax from payments to an independent contractor. The contractor is responsible for paying their own income taxes and self-employment taxes.

Withholding Under Backup Withholding Regulations

As mentioned above, you need a W-9 form for the independent contractor before work begins. In some cases, the taxpayer ID on that form may be incorrect or missing. In those cases, you may be directed by the IRS to withhold federal income tax from that person's payments. This is called backup withholding.

You must withhold federal taxes at the backup withholding rate of 24%. Just as with an employee, take the gross payment to the person and multiply it by 0.24 to get the tax.


You will receive a backup withholding notice from the IRS when backup withholding is due. Follow the requirements exactly as directed.

If you must withhold taxes from an independent contractor under a backup holding order, you must also pay these taxes to the IRS at regular intervals. Backup withholding must be reported to the IRS on Form 945, Annual Return of Withheld Federal Income Tax. Form 945 is due January 31, for the previous tax year.

Reporting Payments to Independent Contractors

Each year you must report to the IRS payments to any contract worker if you paid that person $600 or more during the year. Beginning in 2020, you must use a 1099-NEC form for this report. It's due at the end of January of the year after the tax year. For example, 1099-NEC for 2022 is due January 31, 2023.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do I report payments for independent contractors?

Payments to non-employees are reported on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form 1099-NEC. Non-employees include freelancers, contractors, and professionals who provide services to your company.

How much can I pay someone without a 1099?

The threshold for reporting payments to an independent contractor is $600. Anything above that must be reported to the IRS using Form 1099-NEC. This applies to payments for services provided to your business. You don't need to report payments for personal expenses.

Want to read more content like this? Sign up for The Balance’s newsletter for daily insights, analysis, and financial tips, all delivered straight to your inbox every morning!

Was this page helpful?
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. IRS. "Independent contractor Defined."

  2. IRS. "Independent Contractor (Self-Employed) or Employee?"

  3. State of California Dept. of Industrial Relations. "Independent Contractor Versus Employee."

  4. Securities & Exchange Commission. "Independent Contractor Agreement."

  5. Cornell Legal Information Institute. "Independent Contractor."

  6. IRS. "Topic No. 307 Backup Withholding."

  7. IRS. "Instructions for Form 945 Annual Return of Withheld Federal Income Tax."

  8. IRS. "Instructions for Forms 1099-MiSC and 1099-NEC."

Related Articles