Universal credit: Tax credit debt

This section of the website explains what happens to outstanding tax credits debt when a claimant moves from tax credits to universal credit.

Paying back tax credits debt – current arrangements
Paying back tax credits debt – moving to Universal Credit
The claimant journey
Joint claims
Recovery rates in Universal Credit
DWP powers to recover tax credit debts (April 2018)

Paying back tax credits debt – current arrangements

Currently tax credit claimants pay back debts either directly (through a payment plan) or by having their tax credit award reduced.

We explain more about the recovery methods in our dealing with tax credit debt section.

Paying back tax credits debt – moving to UC

Under legislation in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and subsequent regulations, DWP have the power to recover tax credit overpayment debts from Universal Credit (UC) payments.  

Once the UC award ends, the debt remains with DWP and negotiation for time to pay and hardship will be dealt with by DWP.

The claimant journey

Once the UC claim has been made and the tax credits claim stopped, HMRC should send the claimant a letter TC1131 – ‘Your tax credits overpayments’. An example of this letter can be found here.

HMRC will only transfer ‘safe’ debts to DWP which means if a person is appealing or has an active dispute against a debt it should not transfer. As debts can transfer to DWP at different times, claimants may receive more than one TC1131. No action needs to be taken as a result of this letter unless the claimant wants to challenge an overpayment.

Any time to pay arrangement (normally by direct debit) that the claimant already has with HMRC (or a private debt collector working on their behalf) will be stopped automatically. Claimants who are repaying by standing order will need to cancel it with their bank.

Joint claims

Tax credits operate joint and several liability which means HMRC can ask one or both partners to repay a joint debt. However, their policy set out in COP 26 is that when there is a household breakdown (the couple separate) they will split the debt 50/50 (unless the claimants agree to a different split) and as long as one claimant pays back their 50%, HMRC won’t pursue them for the remaining 50% even if their ex-partner does not pay.

Our understanding is that, where claimants separate, HMRC will split the debt 50/50 before transferring the 50% to DWP for recovery from the single claimant’s UC. Each person should be notified separately of their part of the debt.

Recovery rates in UC

There are 3 main rates of recovery in UC:

Which recovery rate applies depends on the claimant’s circumstances and can change from month to month.

Where the claimant also has a historic housing benefit debt that is being recovered – DWP guidance states that a single deduction will be taken from UC but the recovery will be allocated equally between the two debts (or three debts if there is also a UC overpayment being recovered).

DWP guidance states the maximum amount that can be deducted from a UC claimant’s award is 40% of the standard allowance. There are two exceptions to this:

A maximum of three third party deductions are taken at any given time and if there is insufficient UC to meet the deductions the priority order list is applied. Tax credit fraud overpayments are number 19 on the priority list and normal tax credit overpayments number 21.

CPAG have challenged this and believe the 15% and 25% rates take precedence. See their website for details.

DWP powers to recover tax credit debts (April 2018)

Regulations introduced in April 2015 allow DWP to recover tax credit debt concurrently with HMRC. These regulations are made under Section 126 Welfare Reform Act 2012 (which allows any tax credit functions to be transferred to DWP). The regulations allow DWP to recover tax credit by any of the methods it uses to collect its own debt, including deduction from benefit and Direct Earnings Attachment.

In February 2017, the Government announced that they would exercise these powers and that from April 2018 DWP would start to recover a segment of HMRC tax credit debt from people whose tax credit claims have ended and who have not engaged with HMRC in repaying their tax credit overpayment debt. This is a more general use of the power and is not only for those people who are moving to UC.

As a last resort, this means that DWP could use their Direct Earnings Attachment (DEA) powers which HMRC do not have. This means employers must, if directed, deduct amounts from an employee’s pay and send it to DWP. The amounts that can be deducted depend on whether the standard DEA rate or higher DEA rate is being used but it will be between 3% and 40% of the employee’s pay after deductions for tax, national insurance and pension contributions. You can read more about DEA on GOV.UK website.

Updated 21 July 2017