I found the benefits "system" an absolute minefield when I first became a lone parent. I was reduced to tears of confusion on more occasions than I can honestly recall. That said, in the two years since I became a lone parent I've become very knowledgeable on the subject and now find I know exactly what financial assistance is available for those in most situations.
Every parent is entitled to claim Child Benefit and lone parents in particular need to make sure they've claimed. For the tax year 08/09, parents receive eighteen pounds eighty pence per week for their first child and twelve pounds fifty-five pence for any subsequent children. If you haven't already claimed Child Benefit you can do so by contacting Her Majesty's Customs and Revenues: www.hmrc.gov.uk
If you become homeless (through force such as violence of eviction, not through choosing to leave someone) then you can approach your local council for emergency accommodation which you then need to claim housing benefit to pay for. If you're able to stay in your home, you can claim housing benefit in exactly the same way though you should be aware that you may not receive enough benefit to pay all of your rent (it's not fair but it's not my system).
To claim Housing Benefit, telephone your local council and ask to speak to the housing revenues department stating that you'd like a claim form sent out to you. As soon as you receive this you need to fill it in and return it with the requested documentation (in person or by recorded delivery is best). You can only claim Housing Benefit from the date you requested the claim form, usually providing you return it within 28 days of receipt so don't waste any time. If you have savings of over sixteen thousand pounds you may find you're not eligible for assistance but you should always ask. Similarly it's difficult to claim Housing Benefit for a mortgaged property but in some situations they will pay interest-only payments to keep you in your family home.
If you return to work after claiming Housing Benefit for a period of 26wks or more alongside Income Support, you can claim a four week run-on of Housing Benefit to ensure your rent is paid continuously while you're waiting for your first pay packet to come through. If you're not earning enough to pay all of your rent from your wages you can make a new application for Housing Benefit in that four week period (or later on though it will mean losing money). Housing Benefit does not have to cover all of your rent; it may be that you are entitled to receive a certain amount of assistance to help you if you're earning a low wage.
COUNCIL TAX RELIEF
If you're claiming Housing Benefit you will automatically claim Council Tax relief at the same time. This is all done through the Housing Benefit claim process so you don't need to worry about it. If you don't qualify for Housing Benefit though, it's important you let your local Revenues department aware that you are a single adult occupying your property as it will entitle you to a twenty-five percent discount on your council tax bill.
SOCIAL RENTED HOUSING
If you're homeless or in unsuitable accommodation, you can put your name forward to your local council and local housing associations for a social rented property. The difference between council properties and housing association properties isn't really important and will make no real difference to you. The demand for social rented housing is exceptionally high in the UK and there are unfortunately not enough houses to go round. This isn't down to single Mums alone, please appreciate; it's down to the demand from people from all walks of life. To gain priority for housing (to stand a chance of ever being offered an affordable rent property) you need to ideally be living in a hostel, B&B, on someone's sofa or have medical needs.
I joined the housing list for my local council in April 2006. I initially lived in a hostel but was wrongly advised I'd benefit from moving to a privately rented flat. I didn't benefit because I got pushed right down the list for social rented housing and wound up unable to afford my rent when I went out to work full-time. I was given priority status in late 2007 following pressure from the local town councillor coupled with my severe medical needs. I was allocated a social rented house in March 2008 having been on the waiting list for nearly two years. I am of course extremely grateful for this of course as it means my rent will be just four hundred pounds per month in an area where you would expect to pay seven hundred pounds per month on the private market. Social rented housing is available to tenants for life providing they pay their rent, maintain the property and do not cause a nuisance to others.
Lone Parents that aren't working or who work less than 16hrs a week and earn less than sixty pounds a week can also claim Income Support. For the year 08/09 this is set at sixty pounds and fifty pence for those without earnings. Lone parents under 18 will receive a reduced amount. You can presently claim Income Support at the DWP website: www.dwp.gov.uk/eservice or you can contact your local Job Centre Plus to make an application. It's important you declare any savings you may have as these will reduce how much, if any, Income Support you are entitled to. Savings of over six thousand pounds usually disqualify a person from claiming.
You are able to earn twenty-five pounds a week while claiming Income Support (tax year 08/09) and still receive the full entitlement. Any earnings above this amount, providing you work less than 16hrs a week, will be deducted from the Income Support entitlement. If you start to work more than 16hrs a week you should claim Working Tax Credit and cease claiming Income Support. Providing you have claimed Income Support for twenty-six weeks continuously you will be entitled to a four-week run on through the Job Centre Plus to help you live while you're waiting for your first pay packet to come through.
Note that in 2010 the government plan on revoking this entitlement for parents whose youngest child is seven years or older. This may or may not happen but either way it isn't unreasonable to expect parents to transfer to Job Seekers Allowance and look to find work when their youngest reaches seven years of age as they'll then be settled in full-time education. By 2010 we should see a lot more schools offering wrap-around childcare to make this change possible and tax credits already make it possible for parents to work as little as 16hrs a week.
If you're not just a lone parent but also unwell, you may qualify for Incapacity Benefit instead of Income Support. Initially this pays the same amount as Income Support but the amount increases after six months of claiming. There are additional elements that can be paid including disability living allowance (for those with mobility problems). If you have a medical problem, you need to talk to your GP and Job Centre Plus to find out if you're eligible.
If you're looking after a child with disabilities you need to ask your Job Centre Plus about claiming carer's allowance to help you to do this. Children with disabilities can be more expensive than those without due to their additional medical appointments and any specialist equipment or activities they may need. Carers Allowance can help you to meet these important needs.
CHILD TAX CREDITS
All parents with an income under around sixty thousand pounds a year can claim Child Tax Credits and a premium is paid to those on a low income. If you're claiming Income Support you can expect to receive around forty-five pounds a week per child (around ten pounds a week extra in their first year of life). Call Tax Credits on 0845 300 3909 to make a claim or visit the website at: taxcredits.direct.gov.uk Make sure you inform Tax Credits of any changes that occur after your claim commences. Child Tax Credits are calculated based on income and any savings are disregarded.
WORKING TAX CREDIT
If you're a lone parent who is working 16hrs a week or more (on average) then you should be entitled to claim Working Tax Credit. You don't need to claim for this separately if you're already claiming for Child Tax Credits, just ring up and report your change of circumstances and your award will be updated. You will find that working part-time can come with a lot of teething problems due to the way in which any existing Housing Benefit claim has to be shut down then re-applied for taking into account your new wages. If your local council isn't up to speed, this can mean you have to try to live solely on your part-time wages to meet all of your rent for a period of time. In these situations, it's best to try to negotiate with your landlord or approach the Job Centre for a Crisis Loan.
Working Tax Credits pay a premium to lone parents that basically means if you work 16hrs to 29hrs a week in theory you should be around forty pounds a week financially better off than if you claimed Income Support. It doesn't sound like a lot I know but most single parents relish the opportunity to get out of the house!
If you work 30hrs a week or more, Working Tax Credits pays an additional premium. In theory, you should be around eighty pounds a week better off if you work 30hrs a week or more (compared to if you claimed Income Support). That said; you need to take into account how much it costs you to work. For example can you afford the commute? Can you afford the uniform and work dos? I personally previously made the mistake of commuting to a job that I couldn't really afford to do. When my son starts school and I return to work again, I will be sure to find a job I can reach on foot or by a short bus journey.
If you're eligible for working tax credits then you may also be eligible for assistance with up to eighty percent of your childcare costs. Those on a very low income will usually receive the eighty percent and as income goes up, childcare assistance goes down. This benefit is paid in conjunction with working tax credits and is subject to your using a registered childcare provider. You need to make sure you give them an average of your childcare costs calculated across the year. So if you know you'll need to pay a childminder during school holidays only for example, you need to claim this as an amount divided by the weeks in the year.
It's really important that you claim for Child Maintenance from an absent parent to ensure your child is properly provided for. The government discourage Income Support claimants from avoiding this process by insisting that an absent parent's details may only be withheld from the Child Support Agency database if there is a risk of serious injury to the lone parent or their child. They allow those on Income Support to receive ten pounds a week of any child maintenance that is paid and the rest is retained by the state to repay the parent's Income Support (I don't make the rules). Those claiming Working Tax Credits will be entitled to receive Child Maintenance in full each month. Child Maintenance is presently set at fifteen percent of the absent parent's wage for one child, twenty percent for two and twenty-five percent for three or more children.
LONE PARENT DISCOUNTS
There are quite a few discounts available for those on low incomes. A low income is usually considered to be Income Support or those receiving the higher rate Child Tax Credit but not Working Tax Credit (this is usually where a lone parent is living off their savings or receives too much child maintenance to qualify for Income Support).
Healthy Start Vouchers account for three pounds a week of milk, formula milk or fresh fruit and vegetables. It annoys me slightly as having just one child I need to buy frozen vegetables but three pounds a week pays for all my child's milk and fruit nevertheless. Breastfeeding parents are of course expected to use these vouchers for themselves.
Council Swimming Pools will offer concession rates to those on a low income providing they take proof with them. Often this means a lone parent can swim for half price. This isn't often advertised but if you telephone in advance you should find your local swimming pool does indeed offer this discount.
Home Start UK is a charitable organisation with branches up and down the country; ask your Health Visitor if there's one near you. Home Start are there for all families with a youngest child of five or younger and they're able to offer you time, support and a free weekly playgroup in most areas. They regularly offer heavily subsidised activities that you may otherwise be unable to afford and usually give out shopping vouchers or a small present for the children at Christmas.
Playgroups are able to claim government funding for children two years and over who come from families on a low income. This is another one that isn't very heavily advertised meaning a lot of lone parents miss out on an important activity for their child. Children two years and over are entitled to three free three hour sessions a week and this is usually claimed directly by the playgroup (they should give you a form to fill in). From the term following a child's third birthday, all children are entitled to five free playgroup or nursery sessions a week regardless of their family's financial circumstances.
LOANS AND GRANTS
If you ever find yourself in dire financial circumstances then the Job Centre Plus may be able to assist you in making a claim for a lone or a grant.
A Crisis Loan can be issued to assist those on low incomes in times of crisis such as illness or natural disaster. Crisis Loans are repayable interest-free at a set weekly amount that the claimant can afford. The minimum amount a Crisis Loan can be issued for is presently set at thirty pounds though there is no upper limit. In some cases a Crisis Loan will be deemed inappropriate where the claimant seems likely to be awarded a Community Care Grant instead (which doesn't have to be repaid).
Community Care Grants can be issued for those with needs that they cannot meet themselves. This kind of grant is dependant largely on how much money is in the local Social Fund and can be a bit of a lottery. When I desperately needed a Community Care Grant I was refused on the grounds that when fleeing domestic violence you should stop to collect the cooker on your way. Others in the same situation may well receive a grant if there is more money left in the budget or the person making the decision is in a good mood. Note that it is common to have to appeal against an initial decision to be awarded a grant; that is something I have not done but now realise others have had to do.
A Budgeting Loan can be made for those who have needs they cannot immediately meet. For example if you find your child's carpet has worn out to the point of being unsanitary but you cannot afford to replace it; you can apply for a budgeting loan to buy a new one with which you then pay back interest-free at an affordable rate. There are quite a few restrictions to what a budgeting loan can be made for so make sure you consult your local Job Centre Plus.