Council tax arrears and how to deal with them

It’s important to keep up with your council tax payments. If you fall behind, you could lose the right to pay in monthly instalments or even be taken to court.

Find out what the council will do if you get into arrears, and what help you might be able to get if you’re struggling to pay what you owe.

First reminder about unpaid council tax

You can pay council tax in 10 or 12 monthly instalments. If you miss a payment, the council should send you a reminder giving you seven days to pay the outstanding amount.

The reminder should state:

  • the outstanding amount to be paid
  • that if you do not pay the outstanding amount within seven days, you will lose your right to pay in instalments and become liable to pay the outstanding amount for the whole financial year.

If you pay the outstanding amount but miss a payment later in the year, your next reminder should state that if you miss a third payment in the same financial year, you will automatically lose your right to pay in instalments without a reminder being sent out.

Use AdviceGuide's budget tool to help work out you much money you have to pay towards your debts.  

Second reminder about unpaid council tax

If you have already received a reminder, but have not paid the missing instalment, you will have lost your right to pay by instalments. Your second reminder will state that you have 14 days to pay the whole amount outstanding for the remainder of the financial year. Some councils may still accept payments in instalments, but this will depend on their discretion.

Negotiations with the council if you can't afford to pay

Contact your council as soon as possible if you're having difficulty paying your council tax. Make an offer of regular payments which you can afford.

In cases of extreme hardship, you could ask your council if it would consider a one-off payment to help with the costs of the council tax arrears.

If you think your council tax bill is wrong

If you disagree with the amount of your council tax bill, or if you believe you have paid an instalment but the council says you haven't, you can ask the council to look at your account again. However, you must pay the instalments due on the bill you have received until the matter is resolved or the council can take action against you.

Direct payments for council tax arrears from benefits

If you get income support, jobseeker's allowance or pension credit, you can ask for your council tax arrears to be paid from these benefits.

Court action and liability orders for unpaid council tax

If you do not pay your council tax, your council can apply to the magistrates court for a liability order.

You can attend the court and explain why should not be liable for the debt. You can also contact your council at this stage to see if they will agree to an arrangement with you for payment. 

If you need help or advice you should contact your local Shelter advice centre, Citizens Advice, or another local advice service.

User Shelter's advice services directory to find a face-to-face adviser near you.

Enforcement action following a liability order from the court

If a magistrates court makes a liability order against you for unpaid council tax, your council can take enforcement action to recover the debt.

The council can then recover the debt by making regular deductions from your wages or benefits to pay for your council tax – but it can also ask for permission to send bailiffs to seize some of your belongings. The council can also ask the court to force you into bankruptcy.

Deductions from your wages following a liability order

A magistrates court can order your employer to make regular deductions from your earnings to repay your council tax debt. It is important that the amount of the deductions is affordable for you.

Get advice from a debt adviser if you need help with this. Use Shelter's directory to find a local advice centre.

Deductions from benefits following a liability order

If you are receiving benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance, income support, employment and support allowance or pension credit, your council can apply for your council tax debt to be deducted from these benefits.

Bailiffs can seize your belongings if you don't pay

If you don't pay your council tax bill following a liability order, the council can apply to the court to send bailiffs to seize your goods to pay for the bill. The bailiffs costs can be added to your overall debt.

If the value of the goods is not enough to pay for your bill, or you still refuse to pay, you can be sent to prison for up to three months.

You can contact the council before the bailiffs come to ask if it is possible to make an arrangement to pay the amount you owe.

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