Should I switch to universal credit from tax credits or income support?

Should I switch to universal credit from tax credits or income support?

Some on legacy benefits will earn more if they switch sooner

Around three million people are currently on 'legacy benefits' including tax credits and income support. All will eventually be 'migrated' onto the universal credit system – the one-stop-shop benefit that's replacing them – but changes to the system mean some will receive more if they switch now.

If you're on a legacy benefit (tax credits, income support, housing benefit, income-based jobseekers allowance, income-related employment and support allowance), this guide has four steps to help you to decide whether to switch now, including our handy calculator which can help give an indication of whether you might be better off on universal credit.

This is the first incarnation of this guide. If you've any feedback or questions we've not answered, let us know in the Should I switch to universal credit? forum thread.

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Step 1: Are you likely to be better off on universal credit than other benefits?

Universal credit is the new 'catch-all' benefit that's replacing six legacy benefits. For a detailed breakdown of how it works, head to our Universal credit guide.

Anyone on one of these legacy benefits will eventually be moved over to universal credit automatically, through a process called 'managed migration', but you can choose to switch earlier if you want. Because it's a bit different from the benefits it's replacing, some people can end up much better off on universal credit than with their current combination of benefits. 

The Government predicts 1.4 million people will be better off, 300,000 will see no change, and 900,000 will be eligible for less on universal credit than on their current mix of benefits.

Shelley was one of those in the 'better off' group:

I read that Martin was recommending private renters that work and claimed working tax credit had a look at universal credit. I was scared, I have been on tax credits for a very long time, I understood it and I was familiar with it. But I took the plunge and my benefit has doubled.

HOWEVER, don't rush to switch without researching first. Some will end up worse off if they switch early. This table gives a broad overview of the two groups: 

Who's likely to be better or worse off on universal credit?

Likely better off on universal credit Likely worse off on universal credit
Most people who work and rent Lone parents who work but don't pay rent 
Some people who have 'higher earnings' but don't rent Those with a disability, in work, but not paying rent
TABLE_CELL_STYLE Self-employed workers earning less than the 'minimum income floor'
TABLE_CELL_STYLE Those with savings over £16,000

If you're not included on either list, it's still worth taking a look at Step 2, just in case.

What you get on universal credit is based on earnings, savings, housing, and household circumstances, so two people the same age and earning similar amounts could get vastly different amounts.

Step 2: In the better off list? Use our free calculator to check

Our calculator gives you an indication of how much universal credit you're likely to get, plus will give details of other benefits you might qualify for.

Importantly, it'll also tell you whether you're likely to receive MORE or LESS if you switch over from your current benefits to universal credit – look out for the little flag on your results page.

If the calculator shows you'd likely be better off on universal credit, keep reading as there are several things you NEED to be aware of before you switch.

Step 3: If the calculator shows you'd be better off on universal credit, there's more you MUST think about

Switching from legacy benefits to universal credit is not a decision to be taken lightly. Even if you'd potentially be better off, there are factors that might outweigh that for you. These points should help you decide:

  • Important. Don't rely solely on the calculator, get free one-on-one help. Our 10-minute calculator is just a READY RECKONER. If it says you'd be better off on universal credit, see it as a message that "you should definitely spend time to see if you'll be better off" (and it's worth also checking all the info you put in is correct, of course).

    Sadly, the Government won't give you an accurate "what you'll get" figure before you submit your universal credit application (in fact, it recommends calculators like ours).

    If you think you may be better off switching, seek advice. The Government runs a free guidance and information service called MoneyHelper, which offers the option to chat (online or by phone) with an adviser – make use of it.

    Plus you can get free one-on-one benefits check-ups from Citizens Advice or independent advice centres. It's best to go there before making a firm decision as this isn't one you want to get wrong, especially if you're reliant on existing benefits. It's worth telling an adviser you used the calculator, so they know there is a possibility you may be better off.
  • Once you apply for universal credit, you can't move back. It's very important to understand if you apply for universal credit while claiming a legacy benefit, you CAN'T switch back – so if you end up getting less (or nothing), you're stuck with it. However, if you wait to be moved over by the Government you'll get 'transitional protection', which tops up your benefit payment so you don't lose out. So take your time to get it right. As it's such a big decision, always talk to a benefits expert before making the switch.
  • Beware 'deductions' – universal credit payments can be reduced if you've certain debt. Up to 25% of your standard payment (the basic amount of universal credit you're entitled to) can be automatically deducted to pay off certain debts, such as council tax, energy bills, rent, and child maintenance.

    While money to pay debts can also be taken from legacy benefits, often the amount taken is less than if you're on universal credit.

    This is one of the main reasons we suggest getting one-on-one help before shifting, as the 'deductions' from universal credit may scupper the switching gain – and the calculator WON'T show you that. So ask your adviser about it.

  • Don't apply online if you don't trust your partner with the finances. When you apply for universal credit using the Government's online form, you have to choose a single bank account into which the total universal credit payment for your household will be paid.

    If you're worried that money going into an account you share with your partner may be misused, then talk to Citizens Advice before applying. It will be able to advise on whether you may be able to get universal credit via an alternative payment arrangement.

    For more on this, read Martin's financial abuse blog.

  • Universal credit is usually paid directly to you as one lump sum each month – so you'll need to budget. In England and Wales, universal credit is paid once a month directly into your nominated bank account. It's then your responsibility to manage your finances. This may feel daunting if you're moving from smaller, more frequent benefits payments to one big one that you have to make last for the entire month.

    This is especially true of those whose housing benefit was paid to the landlord. With universal credit it's paid directly to you, so you need to prioritise having the money to keep a roof over your head (though you can ask for the housing element of your monthly payment to be paid directly to your landlord if you struggle to budget).

    If you have mental health issues, addiction problems, impulse control problems or struggle with financial management, the universal credit system may be difficult for you. So factor that into your decision as to whether to switch.

    Scotland and Northern Ireland have some extra flexibility when it comes to receiving the payments. In Scotland, these are known as 'Scottish choices'. This means you can choose to be paid monthly or twice monthly, and – again – you can ask to get the housing element paid directly to your landlord. In Northern Ireland, it's a slightly different system and it's normally paid twice a month, though you can choose to be paid monthly.

  • Universal credit requires many to do 35 hours a week of 'job-related' activities – that's five hours more than on working tax credits. Claiming universal credit comes with a requirement to do certain tasks, as set out in your 'claimant commitment'. Legacy benefits also have conditions, but they're often less demanding than on universal credit.

    For example, if you're able to work but unemployed, standard work-related activity requirements on universal credit are 35 hours per week, compared with 30 hours on working tax credit. Or if you're a single parent with a child aged between 5 and 12, you may have to spend 25 hours a week on work or work-related activities, compared with 16 hours on working tax credits, which could have a huge impact on your current childcare arrangements.

    You can find a full breakdown of what's expected for different scenarios on the Government's Understanding universal credit website.

    Crucially, if you (or your partner) don't do something you've agreed to, your universal credit payment will be reduced. So before making the switch to universal credit, make sure you'll be able to fit in your commitments around things like childcare.

  • You won't get your first payment for about five weeks. If you can't wait that long, you may be able to get an interest-free loan called an advance. This is paid back through automatic deductions to your universal credit payment over 24 months. If you think you'll need an advance, check the increase you'll get from switching covers the difference.

    To do this, divide your advance by 24, then subtract that from your estimated monthly universal credit payment. Compare this amount with what you get on your current benefits. For example, if your advance is £500, you'll have £20.83 (500 / 24) taken from your universal credit payment each month for the first 24 months. To make switching worthwhile, universal credit would need to be paying at least £20.83 more per month than your current benefit.

  • If you work and have more than one payday a month, you'll get different amounts of universal credit each month. Because there are different numbers of days in each month, if you're paid four-weekly, fortnightly or weekly, there'll be some months you get paid more than usual, meaning your universal credit payment will be lower than normal. This can make it even harder to budget and manage your money, so bear this in mind before applying.

  • Switching to UC might mean your child no longer qualifies for free school meals. To get free school meals on universal credit, you can only be earning up to £7,400 a year (compared to £16,190 on child tax credits). This means the switch could mean your child no longer qualifies. However, if you're moved onto UC as part of the 'managed migration' process, your child will still be able to get free school meals until they finish their current education stage (for example, primary, or secondary school). 

  • There are changes coming in July to national insurance. This will have a dual impact: it'll reduce the amount of national insurance you pay, but it'll also reduce the amount of universal credit you can get, and the calculator doesn't yet reflect this.

    This is because your income from working cuts into how much universal credit you receive. Currently, for every £1 you earn – after national insurance, tax, and pension contributions are taken off – your universal credit payment is reduced by 55p. Tax credits, on the other hand, are worked out based on your pre-tax income, so won't be impacted by the change in national insurance threshold.

    If the calculator shows that you're only slightly better off on universal credit, it's another reason it's vital to speak to a benefits adviser about how moving could impact you.
See our detailed Universal credit guide for more info on what it is and how it works, as well as a list of organisations you can contact if you need financial help or advice.

Step 4: Want to switch to universal credit? Here's how

If you've taken advice from a benefits expert, and you're happy that moving to universal credit is the right thing to do, then applying is usually just a case of submitting a new claim on the Gov.uk website. If you live with your partner, you'll need to do it together.

Once you've entered all the information, you'll be shown an estimate of how much universal credit you'll get each month, and you'll have to declare all the information you've provided is correct. At this point, you've submitted your claim, and you can't change your mind.

If your claim's successful, you'll have an interview with a work coach at your local Jobcentre.

Quick questions

  • Will my old benefits stop automatically?

    Once you submit a claim for universal credit, the process of stopping your old benefits should start automatically.

    If you're on working tax credit or child tax credit, these payments should stop AS SOON AS you make your universal credit claim.

    However, if you're getting one of following legacy benefits, you should keep getting them for TWO WEEKS after you make your universal credit claim:

    • Income-based jobseeker's allowance
    • Income-related employment and support allowance
    • Income support
    • Housing benefit

    You DON'T need to pay back these extra payments, and they won't affect how much universal credit you get in your first month.

  • What happens if I stay on legacy benefits?

    If your circumstances don't change, you'll stay on your current benefits until the Government automatically moves you over to universal credit. Currently, it's expected that everyone on legacy benefits will be moved on to universal credit by the end of 2024.

    If you're asked to move over as part of the Government's managed migration process, you'll get 'transitional protection'. This means if you're eligible for less money on universal credit, your payment will be topped up to the amount you currently get, so you don't lose out.

    If your circumstances do change – you get a new job, or separate from your partner, for example – you may be required to move over to universal credit, and you won't get 'transitional protection'. The Government has a list of examples for what counts as a change of circumstances, while benefits specialist Entitledto gives an overview of how different changes in circumstances will affect your benefits.

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