Date last updated: 20 April 2020

ImportantCoronavirus update

Some of the rules about claiming Universal Credit have changed due to the current coronavirus pandemic. For more information, see our coronavirus information page for the latest updates.

Introduction to Universal Credit

Universal Credit is a new benefit system that is replacing many of the current benefits and tax credits. It is for individuals and families of working age whether they are working or not working.

The basics of Universal Credit are:

It’s a single benefit payment usually paid once a month

  • Unlike the older benefit systems, it combines a lot of your payments into one.
  • This is paid as one lump sum once a month.
  • You can ask for it to be paid more frequently in certain circumstances.
  • The money must be paid into a bank account.

If you don’t already have a bank account, the Money Advice Service has information on how to open a bank account, and what you’ll need.

It’s online

  • Universal Credit claims have to be made online.
  • You will also have your own online account.
  • You will use this account as the main way to communicate with your work coach, although you will have face-to-face meetings with them as well.

If it is difficult for you to get online at home, see if it is possible to get online with the help of a friend or family member. If you need access to a computer, you may be able to find this at a public library or use a terminal in a jobcentre. If you are still unable to claim online, you should contact the Universal Credit helpline.

There’s a 5 week wait

  • When you claim Universal Credit, you will have to wait 5 weeks before you receive your first payment.
  • If you need money urgently, you can apply for an advance payment in order to get money sooner, but this is a loan which must be paid back (see below).

You can get help with childcare costs

  • Up to 85% of your childcare costs can be refunded.
  • However you will have to pay for your childcare and then claim the money back.
  • See below for more information on childcare costs while claiming Universal Credit.

Claiming Universal Credit

Can I claim Universal Credit?

If you are not currently claiming any benefits, you can make a new claim for Universal Credit if you are:

  • 18 years old or over*
  • under State Pension age
  • living in the UK (there are extra rules if you’re not a British citizen)
  • have less than £16,000 in savings

*16 and 17 year olds can claim if they are pregnant, have a child, or have no parental support.

Whether you’ll be able to get Universal Credit depends on your situation. Call the Gingerbread helpline for advice on whether you should claim Universal Credit.

You can get help with claiming Universal Credit through the Help to Claim service from Citizens Advice.

If you’re already claiming benefits

Universal Credit is gradually replacing these benefits:

  • Housing Benefit
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Income Support

If you already get one of those benefits, you’ll have to move onto Universal Credit within the next few years as the system is rolled out across the country. You can find out more about this on our ‘When will I have to start claiming?‘ page.

You can usually stay on one of these benefits unless something about your situation has changed – this is called a ‘change of circumstance’.  For example, you might need to claim Universal Credit if you’ve recently split up with your partner or moved to a different area.

Not every change of circumstance means you need to claim Universal Credit, but it is important to get advice first. You can call the Gingerbread helpline for advice on whether you should claim Universal Credit following a change of circumstances.

Citizens Advice can also provide more information about moving to Universal Credit from other benefits.

How much will I get?

There is no easy answer to this, as the amount of your Universal Credit payments will depend on your personal circumstances. The money you receive is made up of a standard allowance, plus a number of different payments, called ‘elements’. Different people will qualify for different elements, which include:

  • Child element
  • Childcare element
  • Housing costs element
  • Capability for work elements
  • Carer element

You can find out more detail about these elements on Revenue Benefits.

You can use the Turn2Us benefits calculator on our website to receive an estimate of your Universal Credit payment per week. You can also call the Gingerbread helpline for a benefits calculation and advice on whether you should claim Universal Credit.

Advance Payments

When you first claim Universal Credit, you will have to wait 5 weeks before you receive your first payment. If you don’t have enough to live on during this time, you can apply for an advance payment in order to get money sooner.

You can ask for an advance payment by:

  • talking to your work coach at your first Universal Credit interview
  • applying through your online account
  • calling the Universal Credit helpline

However there are drawbacks to advance payments. You will also have to pay the money from the advance payment back. The way this happens is that repayments are taken out of your universal credit payments until you’ve paid the advance back.

You shouldn’t be asked to back the money sooner than this if you can’t afford it. If the repayments are causing you problems you should tell your work coach. You can also ask to pay it back quicker if you want to.

Claimant Commitment

What is a claimant commitment?

After you apply for Universal Credit, you will be asked to agree to a claimant commitment. The claimant commitment is an agreement of what is expected of you in order to receive Universal Credit payments. This might include what you will do to find work and what kind of work you can do. Not everyone is expected to look for work. You can find more information below.

Your claimant commitment is agreed in a face-to-face interview with a ‘work coach’ at the jobcentre, which should take place shortly after you make your claim for Universal Credit.

You can get more information and support about claimant commitments by visiting claimantcommitments.org.uk.

Working hours / Work search hours

Among others things, the claimant commitment should state how many hours a week you are expected to work or look for work.

If you are not working, and your youngest child is 3 or over, the claimant commitment will agree how many hours you will spend looking for work. The expectation is that the following amount of hours is appropriate:

  • 25 hours if your youngest child is 5 to 13 years old.
  • 16 hours if your youngest child is 3 or 4 years old.

If your youngest child is under 3 you don’t have to look for work, but you might have to attend jobcentre appointments or go on training to get ready for work.

However this can vary depending upon your caring responsibilities. If you have an older child adjustments may still be approved.

Be aware that different rules may apply in certain circumstances, including:

  • if you are disabled or have a health problem
  • if you care for someone who is disabled or has a health problem
  • if you have been a victim of domestic violence within the last six months.

You can find out more about work search hours on our jobseeking rules for single parents page, or you can call the Gingerbread helpline for advice.

Your childcare needs

It is important to explain your childcare responsibilities to your work coach so that your claimant commitment reflects what you can reasonably do while looking after your children. Remember to tell your work coach about:

  • your children’s school hours,
  • how long it takes to get them to school,
  • anything else which might affect how much time you have in the week.

If you have a child aged under 13, you should talk to your personal adviser about what activities are realistic for you. You can ask for reasonable adjustments to your expected number of work hours or work search hours. For example, you might ask to limit the hours you are available to work so you can drop off and pick your child up from childcare or school.

What happens if I don’t follow my claimant commitment?

If you don’t follow what you agreed to do on your claimant commitment, you can be sanctioned, meaning the amount of money you receive will be cut for a period of time. This is why it is important to try and agree a claimant commitment that reflects what you can reasonably do in the first place. You shouldn’t be sanctioned if you have a good reason for not following your claimant commitment.

What if I don’t want to sign my claimant commitment?

If you aren’t sure about your claimant commitment you do not have to sign it right away. You should be offered a 7-day period to think about if you want to sign. If you do not sign then your claim will be cancelled after the 7 days. The time for accepting your claimant commitment can be extended if you ask for a review.

If you do sign, it is possible to ask for the claimant commitment to be changed afterwards while you are claiming Universal Credit.

Please call the Gingerbread helpline for more detailed advice on your claimant commitment and its implications for you.

Childcare Costs

If you are working any number of hours, or have an offer of work,  you can have up to 85% of your childcare costs refunded while claiming Universal Credit. Your children must be 16 or not have reached the 1st September following their 16th birthday, and the work must be paid, not voluntary.

The maximum amounts you can receive in childcare costs are:

  • £646.35 per month if you have 1 child
  • £1108.04 per month if you have 2 or more children

Childcare costs are paid in arrears. This means that you will have to pay the full cost of the childcare up front, and then get the money paid back to your later. To receive this payment you will need to use your online Universal Credit account to log how much money you paid for childcare each month.

If you are absent from work

If you aren’t currently at work because of illness, pregnancy, or you have a new child, you may still be able to get help with childcare if you are receiving any of the following:

  • Statutory Sick Pay
  • Statutory Maternity Pay
  • Statutory Adoption Pay
  • Statutory Paternity Pay (including both Ordinary and Additional Statutory Paternity Pay)
  • Statutory Shared Parental Pay
  • Maternity Allowance

Childcare providers

To receive help with childcare costs, the childcare you pay for must be provided by registered childcare providers. This generally means the childcare provider is registered with one of these organisations:

  • England – OFSTED
  • Wales – Care and Social Services Inspectorate for Wales (CSSIW)

You can claim for using more than one childcare provider, as long as they are all registered. Approved childcare can include care provided in school or in another place by a childminder, play-scheme, nursery or club. Your childcare provider should be able to provide you with a registration number, which you will need when you first claim your childcare costs through Universal Credit.

Other support

While claiming Universal Credit, you may also be able to get the following forms of additional support. Click on a title bar to see more information.

Help with costs for your child

Free School Meals

  • If you have children in reception, year 1 or year 2 and they go to a state school they are entitled to free school meals regardless of your household income.
  • If you applied for Universal Credit before 1 April 2018 your child can receive free school meals regardless of your household income. This will apply until the date below.
  • If you applied for Universal Credit on or after 1 April 2018 your child can receive free school meals, depending on your household income over the last 1 to 3 months.
  • Even if your income then increases or you stop claiming Universal Credit, your child will remain eligible until they finish the phase of education they’re in on 31st March 2022 in England or 31st December 2023 in Wales.

To make a claim for free school meals contact your local authority. You can find contact details via the gov.uk website.

Healthy Start Vouchers

You can get these vouchers for food or vitamins if you meet all of the following requirements:

  1. You are at least 10 weeks’ pregnant or have a child under the age of four
  2. You are claiming Universal Credit
  3. Your income is £408 or less per month

(To check this, look at your Universal Credit award notice in the section “your take home pay for this month”.)

If you are under 18 and at least 10 weeks’ pregnant, you qualify for Healthy Start Vouchers even if you are not claiming Universal Credit, and regardless of your income.

To check that you qualify and to make a claim go to the Healthy Start website.

School uniforms

Help with the cost of school uniforms is not covered by Universal Credit, but some local councils do offer help with this.

The gov.uk website allows you to search for the details of your authority’s school uniform scheme including how to apply for the grant.

If you’re expecting your first child (pregnant or adopting)

If you claim Universal Credit and are expecting your first child, whether pregnant or adopting, you qualify for a Sure Star Maternity grant. This is a one-off payment of £500.

You can claim when you are 29 weeks pregnant until six months after the birth. If you’re adopting a baby, you must claim within three months of the adoption and your child should be under 12 months old when you claim.

You can’t claim if you are already responsible for other children under the age of 16 – unless you are expecting a multiple birth (twins, for example).

You can get a claim form from your midwife, doctor or health visitor, or download a copy from gov.uk. A health professional must sign it to confirm that you have received advice about your own and your baby’s health.

Help with housing costs

Extra help with rent: if you get  the housing costs element of Universal Credit but need extra financial help to pay the rent, you can ask your local council for a top-up payment. This is called a discretionary housing payment. You do not have an automatic right to this type of payment; it is up to your local council to decide. If you can, get advice from a local advice centre before you apply.

Help with council tax: if you are the only adult in your home that has to pay council tax, you qualify for a 25 per cent discount on the bill. You may also qualify for help with the rest of the bill through your local council tax reduction or council tax support scheme. Apply at your local council.

Help with your mortgage: if you have no earnings and you have a mortgage you may be able to apply for Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) once you have been on Universal Credit for a period of time, usually 9 months. This is a loan to help you pay the interest on your mortgage. Contact the Gingerbread Single Parent Helpline for advice.

Health costs

If you receive Universal Credit and you earned £935 or less in your last Universal Credit assessment period (the last month) then as a parent you can often get the following help with health costs:

  • free prescriptions
  • dental treatment
  • sight tests
  • fares to hospital
  • wigs and fabric supports.

You can also get vouchers towards the cost of glasses or contact lenses.

You can read more about this on the NHS website.

Funeral Expenses

If you are arranging a funeral you could qualify for a Funeral Expenses Payment to help with the cost. The money may have to be paid back from the deceased’s estate if possible.

You can read more about this on the gov.uk website.

Help During Cold Weather

If you receive Universal Credit and have a child under five, or you have a health condition or disability that affects your ability to work, you should automatically receive a cold weather payment. These are paid in periods of very cold weather as defined by the government.

You can read more about this on the gov.uk website.

Find out more

Read answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Universal Credit

FAQs on Universal Credit

Call our helpline

Universal Credit is highly dependent on your personal circumstances. For advice on claiming Universal Credit, or for a benefit calculation, please call our helpline to talk to one of our expert advisers.

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