Our Guide to Council Tax Debt and What You Should Do if You’re in It?

What Is Council Tax Debt?

Council tax debt is considered a priority debt, with consequences if you fall behind. In 2018, total UK council tax debt was around £3 billion, with imprisonment a worst-case scenario for council tax arrears.

Council tax arrears can quickly become a problem. Whilst some debts are low priority, with interest mounting if you don’t pay, council tax debt can lead to consequences like bailiff visits and bankruptcy. In the worst cases, council tax arrears can lead to imprisonment or a suspended sentence. Tackling your council tax debt is something you should focus on as a matter of urgency.

Council Tax Debt: Consequences for Council Tax Arrears

If you’re not keeping up with your council tax payments, there are several consequences that you might have to deal with. The money you owe might be taken straight from your wage or salary, so you won’t have a choice about when you pay it back or how much will be taken each month. If you’re on benefits, the money may be taken straight from your benefits payment.

As your council tax debt lies with your local council, they have the power to claim your money back in ways that other creditors can’t. If taking money straight from your income doesn’t clear your council tax arrears, they’ll move on to other solutions like sending bailiffs to your house. You may be forced into bankruptcy, could lose your home or might even be given a prison sentence if it’s believed that you’re avoiding your debt.

Prison sentences are rare for council tax arrears, but something that you should be aware of. They’re typically given in situations where it’s believed that you could repay your debt, but are actively choosing not to. In a typical year, a little over 6,000 people receive a prison sentence or suspended sentence. Around 90% of these are suspended sentences, but that means you could be imprisoned for a long time if you continued to avoid paying your debt.

Getting Into Council Tax Debt

One of the easiest ways to pay your council tax is by Direct Debit. This means that the money is taken automatically when due. You don’t need to think about it, or set any reminders.

You can also pay your council tax bill online, at the Post Office, in person or over the phone.

You’ll get into council tax arrears if you start to miss payments. This can happen because you forget to pay a bill or don’t have the money in your account to cover the monthly Direct Debit.

If you miss one payment, you’ll usually be sent a letter to remind you to pay. If you can pay within 7 days, you can continue as normal. If not, you’ll receive a second reminder. You can only receive a maximum of two reminders in one year, either for the same missed payment or for two different months.

After your second reminder, if you still can’t pay, you’ll forego your right to make monthly payments. Instead, you’ll now owe the full year’s council tax and be expected to pay it at once. If this happens, call your council as they might be able to negotiate a repayment plan, to let you go back to monthly payments, but you aren’t automatically entitled to.

Next Steps for Council Tax Debt

The council can make a legal demand for payment. Legal costs can be added to the total council tax debt, with legal action taken if you can’t or won’t pay what you owe.

Usually, the council will try to take the money by force. They’ll claim the money from your monthly income, through employment or your benefits. Your income could drop suddenly, which could be a challenge if you’ve already struggled to make ends meet.

If the council can’t recover your debt, they might send in the bailiffs. Your property may be seized to cover the cost of your debt. If bailiffs don’t get the results they need, you’re likely to be taken to court.

Once you’re taken to court, it’s up to the court to decide how you’ll make your repayments. At this stage you may be faced with a prison sentence for non-payment, or could receive a more positive result with a more manageable way to make repayments.

Managing Priority Debts Like Council Tax

Council tax is a priority debt because of the control the council has. Most creditors can’t take their money directly from your wages or benefits, so you’re given more control over what you pay and when you make repayments. With council tax arrears, the decisions are taken out of your hands fairly quickly.

If you’re struggling with council tax arrears, the situation can escalate quickly to bailiffs or a prison sentence. If you’re struggling with several debts, council tax should be a high priority.

Other creditors can wait, or might be more willing to take smaller payments over a longer period of time, but missed council tax payments can even lead to the repossession of your home.

Essential Debts Like Council Tax

Most debt is optional. Nobody’s forcing you to use a credit card, take out a loan or buy items on credit. But, whilst you live in the UK, council tax is essential, and so debt is taken much more seriously.

Everyone’s expected to pay council tax for the property they live in. That’s the case whether you rent or own your home. Council tax is an unavoidable cost, so it’s a debt that anyone can get into. You don’t have to be someone that borrows money, to be affected by council tax arrears.

Dealing With Council Tax Arrears

Council tax debt can affect absolutely anyone. If you fall behind on your payments, you should contact the council as soon as possible to talk through your options and explain your current situation. The council can be lenient, but only if you can explain why you haven’t been able to make payments.

You may be able to show a copy of your household budget. With this, you can make an arrangement to repay at an affordable rate. If the council can’t accept what you’ve offered, they may decide to take further action.

Writing Off Council Tax Arrears

Very rarely, councils will write off someone’s council tax arrears. This doesn’t happen often, and will only be an option for those in severe financial difficulty.

If you’re really struggling with debt, your council tax arrears can be written off as part of a bankruptcy arrangement. Sometimes, councils will also accept having debts written off as part of an IVA.

It’s safest to assume that, unless you’re filing for bankruptcy, you will need to pay your council tax back. Treat this as a top priority to avoid losing your possessions or your home. Any debt solution should prioritise your council tax debt.

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