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Work out which debts to deal with first

This advice applies to Scotland

'Priority debts' are debts that can cause you particularly serious problems if you don’t do anything about them.

You need to work out which of your debts are priority debts and deal with them first. Make sure you’ve collected together information about all of your debts.

1. Identify and deal with your priority debts

Contact your nearest Citizens Advice if:

  • you’re struggling to deal with your priority debts

  • you have more than 1 priority debt and you need help deciding which to deal with first

If you've got any of these, they're your priority debts:

Rent arrears

This is a priority debt because your landlord might evict you from your home if you don’t pay.

Before your landlord can evict you, they’ll need to follow the correct eviction procedure to get a 'possession order' - this says when you have to leave. If you don’t leave by the date on the possession order, your landlord can get sheriff officers to evict you.

Find out how to deal with your rent arrears:

Mortgage arrears or secured loan arrears

These are priority debts because your bank or building society might evict you and take your home if you don’t pay.

Before they can evict you, they’ll need to go to court to get a ‘possession order’ - this says when you have to leave. If you don’t leave by the date on the possession order, your bank or building society can set a date for your eviction and ask sheriff officers to evict you.

Find out how to deal with your mortgage arrears.

Council tax arrears

This is a priority debt because if you don’t pay, your local council will usually ask the sheriff court to send you a demand for payment. This is called a 'summary warrant'.

Once the council has got a summary warrant, it then needs to send you a demand to pay. This is called a 'charge for payment'. If you don't pay the council tax within the time limit, the council can take steps to get the money from you. For example, the council might be able to take money from your earnings or from your bank account.

Find out how to deal with your council tax arrears.

Gas or electricity bills

These are priority debts because your supplier might cut off your gas or electricity if you don’t pay.

Before they disconnect you, your supplier must give you a chance to pay your unpaid bills through a payment plan. They must give you 7 days’ notice in writing before they cut off your supply.

Find out how to deal with your unpaid gas or electricity bills.

Phone or internet bills

These might be priority debts because your supplier can cut off your phone or internet if you don’t pay.

They're only priority debts if it’s really important that you can use a phone or the internet. You might, for example, rely on them because you:

  • have a disability or long-term health condition

  • need them for your job

  • are looking for work

If it’s really important for you to use a phone or the internet, tell your supplier when you contact them.

Find out how to deal with your unpaid phone or internet bills.

TV licence payments

This is a priority debt because you could be fined by the sheriff court if you watch TV without a licence. Check if you need a TV licence on the TV Licensing website.

Find out how to deal with court fines.

Court fines

These are priority debts because strong action can be taken against you if you don't pay. For fines over £500, in rare circumstances, you could be sent to prison if you don't pay. 

You might get a court fine if you commit a crime, for example:

  • speeding or breaking other rules while driving 
  • watching TV without a TV licence

Find out how to deal with court fines.

Overpaid tax credits

HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) will tell you if you’ve been overpaid tax credits.

This is a priority debt because if you don't pay, HMRC can:

  • take the money from your wages - this is called a direct earnings arrestment
  • take the money from your benefits or tax credits

HMRC will warn you if they’re going to do this but they don’t have to go to court first.

If you have the money but choose not to pay back a tax credits overpayment, HMRC can take you to court. If you don’t go to court when asked or don’t do what the court tells you to, you could be sent to prison.

Find out how to deal with overpayments of tax credits.

Payments for goods bought on hire purchase or conditional sale

If you buy something on hire purchase or conditional sale, you pay for it in instalments and you don’t own it until you finish paying. If you’re not sure if you bought something on hire purchase or conditional sale, check your contract.

This might be a priority debt because the creditor could take back the goods you bought. If you keep the goods in your home or you’ve paid back more than a third of the cost, the creditor has to go to court to do this.

Hire purchase and conditional sale payments are only priority debts if the goods you bought are really important. For example they might be really important if you need them to:

  • get around - such as a car if there’s no public transport

  • cook food

  • store medicine - such as a fridge

Find out how to deal with missed payments for hire purchase or conditional sale.

Unpaid income tax, National Insurance or VAT

These are priority debts because if you don’t pay, HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) can:

  • take the money from your wages
  • go to court to get an attachment order - this can then be enforced by seizing your goods

If you have the money but choose not to pay, HMRC can take you to court. If you don’t go to court when asked or don’t do what the court tells you to, you could be sent to prison.

Find out how to deal with unpaid income tax, National Insurance or VAT on Business Debtline’s website.

Unpaid child maintenance or child support

This is a priority debt because the Child Maintenance Service or Child Support Agency can take the money from your wages or bank accounts if you don’t pay.

They’ll warn you if they’re going to do this but they don’t have to go to court first.

If you have the money but choose not to pay, you could be sent to prison. You won’t go to prison if you can show you can’t pay.

If you don’t pay, the sheriff court can also take away your driving licence or passport for up to two years.

Find out how to deal with unpaid child maintenance or child support.

2. Deal with your other debts

Once you’ve got your priority debts under control, you should look at all your other debts. They’re ‘non-priority debts’ because the problems they cause are less serious.

Check how to ask your other creditors to stop chasing you while you deal with your priority debts.

Your non-priority debts might include:

  • credit card or store card debts

  • catalogue debts

  • unsecured loans including payday loans

  • overpayments of benefits - apart from tax credits

  • unpaid parking tickets - these are called Penalty Charge Notices or Parking Charge Notices

  • money you owe to family and friends

If you don’t pay these debts, your creditors can take you to court to get you to pay - check what to do if you’re being taken to court.

If you owe money to family and friends, it might help to tell them you have other debts. They might offer to wait until you’ve paid off your other debts before asking you to pay them back.

Next steps

Check if you could increase your income to help you deal with your debts.

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