Counting down the days to fatherhood? Congratulations! And to help you prepare, we’ve compiled this self-employed and freelance paternity guide.
By Katie Byrne
Counting down the days to fatherhood? Congratulations! And to help you prepare, we’ve compiled this self-employed and freelance paternity guide.
As a self-employed business owner or freelancer, your impending new arrival isn’t the only bundle of joy in your life. Odds are that your business and work are just as exciting (and demanding), with just as much nurturing required. So as you countdown to your baby’s arrival, how can you prepare for your paternity leave and what are your rights?
Whilst employed dads are entitled to up to two weeks of paternity leave and associated paternity pay, things are entirely different for people who are freelance or self-employed.
Preparing to become a parent (whether you’ve done it before or not) is a full-on experience, and so getting as organised as possible from a work perspective will allow you to feel ready, as well as help you avoid any nasty surprises along the way. With that in mind, read on for our guide to navigating paternity leave as a self-employed or freelance parent.
Self-employed paternity allowance and pay
The entitlements of self-employed paternity leave are almost non-existent in the UK - especially in comparison to what dads in regular full-time employment can claim.
“The right to take one or two weeks of paternity leave is only available to employees with 26 weeks of qualifying service by the fifteenth week before the expected week of childbirth,” explains Tracey Guest, partner and Head of Employment at Slater Heelis. “Unfortunately, there are no equivalent alternative rights for workers, freelancers or self-employed fathers.”
“Consequently, dads-to-be without ‘employee’ status find themselves having to take time out from their work on a period of unpaid leave when their child is born, or managing the difficult task of juggling their work around the arrival of their newborn.”
It’s a different story in other countries around Europe: by contrast, Spain offers self-employed fathers 16 weeks of freelance paid paternity, whilst Belgium now provides self-employed dads with three weeks’ worth of paid leave.
If you have grounds to argue that your employment status falls within the broader category of a ‘worker’, you could be entitled to paid holiday, adds Guest.
“[If you can do this], it would at least give you a basic statutory entitlement to 5.6 weeks of paid holiday a year,” she explains. “Whilst employers normally require workers taking holiday from work to give advance notice of this, such individuals may look to book some holiday for a period on or around the baby’s due date to at least have some paid time off around this period in the absence of any paternity leave rights.”
“Some self-employed fathers may be eligible for Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits,” adds Alex Christen, employment lawyer at Capital Law. “The government website has more information on the eligibility criteria for this support. You can also claim Child Benefit as soon as you have registered the birth of your child. Claims can take up to twelve weeks to be processed but can be backdated for three months.”
For Aaron Dootson, a freelance lighting designer whose daughter was born in August 2021, the experience has ‘not been great’. “I didn’t realise I would get zero help as a dad, which has made it very difficult for me to support my partner in the early days,” he explains. “Becoming a dad has been something that I always dreamed of and the most incredible experience but I have felt a large amount of responsibility on my shoulders to provide for my new family. The unpredictability of the freelance world made for quite an anxious time in the lead-up to the birth, not helped by the strains that the pandemic put on the theatre industry, forcing me to get a temporary job at Tesco.”
Dootson’s partner is a freelance stage manager and the couple had originally planned to do shared leave so that she could work for three months over Christmas - before discovering that this was only available to couples who are in ‘full-time position’, and not the self-employed. He explains: “My partner receives £157 per week and I wanted to give up work for three months, and for me to receive this money while my partner worked. I believe that whichever parent is not working should receive the Maternity Allowance, giving mums and dads the chance to share the role and not be stuck in the Dark Ages, where only the woman stays at home.”
Can you claim paternity pay when self employed?
Can self-employed fathers claim paternity pay? The answer is a resounding no - fiscal support for freelance paternity leave is almost non-existent.
There is currently no form of statutory paternity pay for freelancers or the self-employed.
With that in mind, there’s no better time than right now to work out where you stand - and what you need to do to make your self-employed paternity leave as financially viable as possible.
“Plan ahead!” recommends Christen. “For freelancers, it is even more important to plan the logistics of managing your business while taking time off, and you may need to save money in preparation for taking unpaid leave.”
Dootson has similar advice for freelancers. “Save as much as you can prior to baby’s arrival so that you have a buffer to help towards the change in income that your partner will receive,” he says. “Try to line up jobs with companies that will be lenient and understanding of your new family, also be ready to change the efficiency of the way that you work as you won’t have as much time to be free and on-call.”
Factors you might want to consider include:
- How much leave would you ideally like to take?
There’s no predicting how the birth of your child might happen, no matter how meticulously you and your partner have prepared your birth plan. When it comes to your paternity leave, it could be wise to have a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A assumes that everything goes as expected with the birth of your child, and that your partner makes a speedy recovery; Plan B is there in case your partner needs more support than anticipated due to healing taking longer than initially planned.
- How much money would you ideally need for paternity leave?
Decide on the precise amount you need to be able to live comfortably during the time planning to take for your paternity leave. This will allow you to work out whether or not you’re realistically able to make this sum - whether by saving up or undertaking additional projects - in time for your baby’s due date.
If you have a partner who will also be on parental leave, make sure you factor-in their finances, too. Crunch your numbers ASAP to allow you to have the strongest chance of being in the most comfortable position by the time your baby arrives.
- Are you able to save any money?
Whether it’s by cancelling that pricey (and under-utilised) gym subscription or by cutting your latte habit in half, work out how you can save some money by trimming current unnecessary expenditure. Sounds simple, is simple - and can add up quickly, too. Investigate the best bank accounts out there to make sure you can save your money in the smartest possible place.
- Are you able to take on any extra work?
Do you have the time to work with additional clients, or to take on new projects? If so, make sure your rates represent the worth of your services (because now is categorically not the time to be modest in your pricing!) and save any money made straight into the account mentioned above. If you can’t commit to new clients, make sure you keep your existing ones happy, including by making it clear how you’ll handle their work while you’re off. (See What should you do with your freelance business when on paternity leave? below.)
Can you freelance while you’re on paternity leave?
Yes - and you might have to if you’re worried about your income.
“I hadn’t realised until my partner fell pregnant how limited the paternity entitlement was for freelancers,” reveals a graphic designer who asked not to be named. “By that point, it was too late to save much money and so I ended up back at my desk four days after our son was born. I felt really guilty that I wasn’t able to support my partner as much as I would have liked to but I had no choice.”
One small perk to come out of the pandemic is the rise of remote working - meaning that, at the very least, there’s a good chance you might be able to WFH and perhaps even conduct client meetings from the comfort of your own home.
“As they’re not entitled to paternity leave, freelancers or self-employed persons are free to work as and when they choose, as normal,” says Guest. “If an individual is able to establish their employment status as a ‘worker’ and take some holiday over what would have been a paternity leave period, they can choose to work when they are on holiday if they so wish, but it would mean they are using up holiday entitlement which is meant to be a rest from work.”
What should you do with your freelance business when on paternity leave?
The answer to this question will vary massively for every self-employed person - but coming up with a plan in advance will help you avoid any last-minute panic.
“As freelancers need to make arrangements for, and pay the cost of, paternity leave themselves,” says Christen. “This makes it even more important to plan ahead for the time you wish to take off. This is likely to be based on a combination of how much time you wish to take off and also how much you can afford. It is a good idea to try and save as much as you can in the lead up to the birth of your child. You may wish to pause all work during the time you take off or organise appropriate paternity cover to operate your business whilst you are on leave, such as outsourcing particular projects or working with clients to see if there can be any flexibility on project timelines.”
Putting your freelance business on pause. Whether you’re planning to be off work for one week or three months, closing your business for the duration of your paternity leave will allow you to have a clean break. If you actively work with clients, this might entail preparing upcoming work in advance so that it’s available to them even though you’re technically ‘off’.
Continuing to work, with the stipulation that you’ll be less accessible. If you can’t justify putting work on hold entirely, you could look to change the way you handle projects and interact with clients. (Skip to What should you do with your freelance business when on paternity leave? below.)
Handing work over to a trusted peer whilst you’re off. If you don’t want to run the risk of losing clients, contracting out long-standing gigs to a reliable peer could make a neat alternative. (But be careful - check out Organising paternity cover for the self-employed for more.)
Which option you choose will depend on your personal circumstances, with factors to consider including how much support you’ll want and need to provide at home, your financial situation and the precarity of your client relationships.
“If you are going to pause all work, you should inform all of your clients and any other relevant people who may try and contact you during your period of paternity leave,” advises Christen. “Try to ensure that all outstanding work is dealt with before your paternity starts.”
How to prepare your freelance business before paternity leave
Depending on your industry and business, there are a few things a freelancer can do to get ready for time away from work.
If you’re planning to close your business down for the duration of your leave, make sure you:
Notify all clients: let them know how long you’ll be off for and ensure your work for them is entirely up-to-date before your leave begins. If you can - and it might not be feasible - bank additional work up for them that can be rolled out whilst you’re off.
Schedule social output: if you rely on social media to promote your business or help you land clients, use a scheduling tool to line-up posts that can go out while you’re on leave.
Have a plan for when you return: to ensure you can get back into the swing of work ASAP (no matter how sleep-deprived you might feel!), create a detailed to-do list for your first week back.
If you’re planning to continue working but on a stripped back basis, update your accessibility. This will allow clients to contact you but help to balance their expectations in terms of a response. This could include:
Setting an auto-response on your emails that explains you’re monitoring your inbox on an irregular basis. You could also provide an alternative method of contact for absolute emergencies, such as your mobile number.
Updating your ‘Contact’ page on your website to reflect the fact that you’re temporarily looking at emails less regularly, so might take a little longer than normal to respond.
Putting a message on your social platforms to explain you’re going to be on partial leave for the foreseeable future. If you’re planning to schedule social content for your leave, this could complicate things, so stick to one or the other.
Organising paternity cover for the self-employed
Depending on the services you offer and the way you work, arranging ‘cover’ can prove more beneficial than shutting up shop for the duration of your paternity leave. In its most basic form, this could entail asking someone you trust to keep an eye on your emails; in its more complex form, it could involve distributing clients across one or two trusted peers to ensure they don’t receive a dip in the service they’ve come to expect from your business.
Whilst it might sound relatively straightforward, you still need to take it seriously and treat it as a business decision, no matter how close you and your peers might be.
For example, picture the situation: your first child is due in October. You’ve worked out your finances and have decided to take eight weeks of paternity leave. You have a handful of long-standing clients who appreciate that you’re taking time off but will still require a degree of servicing whilst you’re off. Instead of losing them to another freelancer, you elect to pass them over, temporarily, to a trusted industry peer who you’ve known for years. When you return from leave in January, you discover that the peer has poached one of your clients.
So how can you safeguard yourself against this situation potentially arising?
“The legalities in this situation will come down to what the contractual agreement is between the freelancer and the trusted peer,” advises Guest. “If the work that the freelancer does cannot be stalled for a brief period to avoid the need to hand work to someone else, it would be advisable to have a commercial contract drawn up between the parties involved so that it’s clear what everyone is agreeing to from the outset and any recourse in the case of poaching.”
Whilst you might be confident that you have no reason to doubt your colleague, it’s fundamentally easier - and safer - to have a clear-cut agreement in place before the cover period begins. That way, there’s scope for neither confusion nor deception, and your relationships with both your colleague and your client can be retained intact. There could also be value in pencilling in the occasional catch-up with your clients, just to keep in touch and find out how they’re getting on.
Also give thought to how soon you’ll start to pass over information to your chosen cover. “If you wish to organise cover for your period of leave, I would recommend doing it as early as possible,” suggests Christen. “Practical steps to help with this include informing all customers in advance that you will be taking time off and ensuring that the person covering for you does not have any outstanding queries before you go on leave. This will all ensure a smooth transition, so you can enjoy your time on paternity leave.”
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