Universal Credit for the self-employed - how does it work?

Not sure what’s involved when it comes to Universal Credit for the self-employed? Here’s what you need to know

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When it comes to Universal Credit for the self-employed, many people who work for themselves don’t realise that they are eligible for it to help with living costs. And with energy, food and fuel costs continuing to rise, it’s crucial to claim any benefits that you are eligible for. 

According to Government figures, as of May 2022, there were around 4.25 million self-employed workers in the UK, many of whom could qualify for Universal Credit.

Laura Suter, head of personal finance at AJ Bell, said: “Lots of people who are self-employed might not be aware that they can get a top-up to their earnings from Universal Credit. If you’re trying to get your own business off the ground or only working part-time on it, you might not be making enough to live on, but that’s where Universal Credit can help by giving you a bit extra each month to boost your earnings.

“Many people will be struggling unnecessarily on lower incomes when they could be getting support.”

If you aren’t self employed, then check out our guide on who can claim Universal Credit

Bear in mind also that if you were receiving Universal Credit (or had submitted a claim that went on to be successful) on 25 May 2022, you will be eligible for the first instalment of the £650 cost of living payment pledged by the Government.  

Universal Credit for the self-employed - how does it work?

The benefit is designed to support you to pay for living costs while you work to grow your business and earnings are low. 

The system is strict to make sure claims are genuine. You’ll need to set up an online Universal Credit account where you will submit your claim. You are required to report your self-employment earnings to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) every month to carry on getting any benefit you’re entitled to. Reporting is all done online under the ‘Report your income and expenses’ section of your account.

If you don’t supply these figures in the time period required - between 7 days before and 14 days after your assessment date each month - your benefits will be suspended.

If you started your business less than one year before you started your claim, you get a 12 month start up period for the first year of your Universal Credit claim. That means your benefit is calculated on actual earnings and you will not be required to look for or take up alternative employment during that time.

Can I get universal credit if I am self-employed?

To be eligible you must satisfy criteria to say you are “gainfully self-employed”. To confirm as such, you will need to attend a gateway interview with a work coach at your local Jobcentre Plus office.

For your work to be classed as gainfully self-employed, it should be your main job and the work you do must be regular and organised. You can show evidence of this by taking along copies of invoices, trading accounts or proof you’re registered as self-employed with HMRC by showing your Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR). You must also expect to make a profit.

If you are gainfully self-employed whilst claiming Universal Credit you will not be expected to look, or be available, for other work.

However, if you cannot provide proper evidence of, you’ll need to look, and make yourself available for other work if you want to keep receiving Universal Credit benefits.

How is Universal Credit calculated if I am self-employed?

Payments are calculated based on an assumed income, called the minimum income floor. This is based on what someone of your age would earn if they worked at the national minimum wage for the number of hours that you are expected to work - or look for work. 

If you earn more than this, then your Universal Credit amount is based on your actual earnings. If you earn less, the minimum income floor is used,  instead of your actual earnings, to work out how much Universal Credit you can get. You may need to look for additional work to top up your income.

As your earnings go up, the amount of Universal Credit you are entitled to goes down until it hits zero. If your earnings exceed the point at which your Universal Credit payment would be zero by more than £2,500, you are said to have surplus earnings. This may reduce the amount of benefits you receive in later months. Payments could even stop completely for a time.

There are some groups that are exempt from the minimum income floor, however. These include start-ups that are less than 12 months old and disabled and lone parents. Those who are exempt will see payments calculated according to actual income rather than assumed income.

How much can I claim in Universal Credit?

There is no figure for a standard payment for the self-employed. It’s calculated on a case-by-case basis.

Personal finance expert Laura Suter said: “Self-employed incomes can fluctuate more than someone on a salaried job, who will earn the same amount every month. That means there might be periods where you’re not entitled to extra help from Universal Credit. Equally, if you see a dip in income you might be entitled to more support.”

With earnings and benefit payments likely to change each month it can be hard to budget, so you need to be as organised as you can.

What should I do if my circumstances change?

Part of your responsibilities when claiming benefits is to keep the DWP informed of any changes to ensure that you’re receiving the correct amount. 

If there are changes to your earnings as a self-employed worker, you must report this by signing into your Universal Credit account and updating your income.

It’s worth reporting straight away because you’ll likely have to repay overpayments made in error. It's also crucial to communicate if there are other changes.

Laura Suter adds: “It’s important to keep the Government up-to-date with any changes to your circumstances, such as deciding to take on an employed job, shutting down your business, or falling ill and not being able to work. The last thing you want is to be paid benefits you weren’t entitled to and then have to go through the process of paying them back.”

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Personal finance expert
Holly Thomas is a freelance financial journalist and writes across all areas of personal finance, specialising in investments. Holly’s work can mainly be seen in The Times, The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail. Previously she worked as Deputy Personal Finance Editor at The Sunday Times, Money Editor at the Daily/Sunday Express and also at Financial Times Business. She has won a number of professional awards, most recently Investment Freelance Journalist of the Year at the Aegon Asset Management Media Awards in November 2021. Others include Freelance Financial Journalist of the Year at the Headlinemoney Awards.