Making child benefits clearer

Clearing up some of the confusion on benefits entitlement that can occur when a child moves from the care of one person to another

One of the messiest areas in social security law is child benefit when children move from the care of one person to another.

There are inherent delays in child benefit processing when children move home anyway, but this is often compounded by other problems. For example, an unemployed parent who takes over the care of a child from the other parent might have to wait 12 to 15 weeks for the benefit to be transferred. They may also find they are unable to claim income support during that period because the Jobcentre will not accept they are a lone parent until the child benefit is paid. This can have a knock-on effect on social services, which may have to provide financial assistance for families while they wait for child benefit and income support to be sorted.

At a recent national level meeting between the Department for Work and Pensions, the child benefit centre and local authority welfare rights advisers, a senior Jobcentre Plus official said the income support regulations allowed them to process claims without child benefit being in payment as long as they could verify that a claim had been made. This can be done through a fast-track phone line between Jobcentre Plus and the child benefit centre.

However, there are time limits laid down in law for people to retain entitlement to child benefit where they did not voluntarily relinquish it. Unless the parent gives up child benefit voluntarily, they are entitled to the benefit for four weeks anyway. Where rival claims are received for the same children, and there is a dispute, it may take longer due to the need to investigate who has responsibility for the child. About 10% of child benefit claims may be delayed because there is a dispute over who has custody of the child.

Jobcentre Plus should accept a statement from a parent who is relinquishing child benefit in order to process a new claim for the other parent. In addition, where a local authority is involved in removing a child and placing them in another household, a new claim for child benefit can be processed on the strength of supporting written evidence from the local authority. This could even be done by phone as long as the decision maker at Jobcentre Plus is happy they can confirm whom they are talking to.

All the above instructions and guidance to DWP staff are in the DWP’s Income Support Guide under “Initial action/ conditions of entitlement/lone parents – paragraph 15″.

A similar problem has arisen with disabled young people who switch from being a dependent of their parent to claiming employment and support allowance (ESA) in their own right, especially if they are still in education. In that circumstance, either child benefit (and child tax credit) or ESA is possible and the young person should take specialist advice.

Where they choose ESA, there are examples of claims refused because child benefit is being paid – and the parent will not relinquish child benefit until ESA is awarded. This should be resolvable because there is no requirement for the DWP to check the status of child benefit in payment to the young person’s parents, according to the Income Support Guide under “Special circumstances /relevant education – paragraph 17″.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. If you have a question e-mail

This article is published in the 10 December 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Switching carer can be messy

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