EXPERTS are urging those applying for Pension Credit to double check their details after one pensioner was hit with a huge £22,000 bill.
Robert Vincent will be paying money back well into his 80s after an error on his application in 2017 was only spotted this year.
Pension Credit is a benefit which aims to help with living costs for those over state pension age (currently 66) and on a low income.
The benefit tops up their weekly income to a minimum of £201.05 for single pensioners and £306.85 for couples.
Pension Credit is hugely under-claimed, with the latest government figures showing almost a million eligible pensioners are missing out on around £1.7billion.
You must apply for it yourself by filling out a lengthy form either online, over the phone or by post – the postal form is 24 pages long – and many pensioners aren't aware it exists.
To determine eligibility, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) asks claimants for a number of details about their finances including their state pension and any other workplace or private pension savings they have.
If it later finds any of the details were wrong, it can demand any overpaid money back years later – that's despite pensioners only being able to backdate a claim three months, even if they have been eligible for longer.
In March 2017, Robert, from Porthcawl in South Wales, was struggling to manage his bills when an article about Pension Credit in the newspaper caught his eye.
The 75-year-old wasn't sure whether he should get it, but decided to apply and let the DWP determine whether he was eligible.
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So, he was thrilled when it confirmed in May 2017 that he was entitled to the benefit and his income would start being topped up.
But Robert's world came crashing down a few weeks ago when he received a letter from the DWP demanding he repay £22,096 after it discovered an error in his details.
The government department said it had found his private pension income was higher than the amount he had stated in his application – more than six years later.
Robert told the Sun: "I completely accept I need to pay the money back if I wasn't entitled to it, even though it was a genuine mistake.
"The problem is that I really can't afford the huge repayments.
"I don't understand why the DWP didn't check my details were correct until now, six years later."
Since finding out his Pension Credit would be cut, Robert's rent has increased from £54 to £419, as he also lost his housing benefit, and he now has to pay £73 a month in council tax.
"I've had to cancel all my insurance policies just to afford food, so I have no security now, and I've had to cut all my other spending too," he said.
"I've even got rid of my print newspaper subscription, which I've had for decades.
"I don't know how I'll be able to keep this up for years to come, I'm just hoping I can reduce the payments to a more affordable £150 instead."
Robert currently has to pay back £258.72 every four weeks until February 2030, when the payments should reduce to £105.17 until he pays off the debt.
If he paid it back at this rate, it would take him around seven years.
But if Robert reduces his rate to £150 every four weeks, his debt won't be cleared for more than 11 years.
He is paying the money back from his state pension, which currently pays him £192 a week – or £770 every four weeks – meaning his monthly income has been slashed by a third.
Over the last few years, thousands of benefits claimants have been asked to pay back money they were awarded in error.
Some of those mistakes were on the part of the DWP, while in other cases claimants had given the wrong information or failed to report a change in their financial circumstances.
The latest government figures show around £330million was overpaid in Pension Credit in the year to October 2022, up from £270million in 2020.
According to the data, fraudulent claims have reduced over the last two years while errors have increased.
While it may sound reasonable to ask people to repay money they weren't entitled to, experts warn it's very easy to make a mistake if you're applying for benefits yourself.
And the more time that passes, the harder it is for claimants to pay back the increasingly-large sums owed.
Deven Ghelani, director of benefits research centre Policy in Practice, said: "The DWP is owed over £5billion in overpayments today, causing a great deal of unnecessary uncertainty and hardship to claimants.
"This is often painted as people trying to scam the system, but is much more likely to be an honest error on the part of the claimant or by the DWP.
"Application processes need to be made simpler, and the DWP needs to improve its checks at the time of application so people know what they can claim, give the right information and are paid the right amount."
When the Sun contacted the DWP, it said Robert would be able to reduce his monthly payments to an amount he can afford. We are now helping him to do this.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Pension Credit is a means tested benefit.
"We carefully balance our duty to the taxpayer to recover overpayments and safeguards are in place to ensure deductions are manageable, including payment plans.”
What are your rights if you're asked to repay Pension Credit?
When you apply for Pension Credit, it's your responsibility to ensure any information you give is correct.
Income, earnings, savings and investments all need to be declared, including from pensions.
If you're not sure whether you're entitled to Pension Credit or any other benefits, you can check for free using a benefits calculator such as Policy in Practice's calculator at betteroffcalculator.co.uk/ or MoneySavingExpert's benefits eligibility checker.
Charities such as Age UK and Citizens Advice may be able to help you claim if you're not sure whether you qualify or what you need to submit.
If your circumstances change after being awarded a benefit, such as if there's a change in the rate of pension you receive, you must report it to the DWP.
If the DWP says you have been overpaid Pension Credit, there are several things you can do to stop or reduce the payments.
First, check whether the DWP has made a mistake. It should give a reason for why it believes you were overpaid in its letter.
If this doesn't look right, you can call the Pension Service helpline on 0800 731 0469.
You can also ask them to look at the decision again – also known as "mandatory reconsideration".
You can do this by writing a letter to the Pension Centre – check online for your nearest branch. Explain in your letter why you disagree with the decision and back this up with evidence.
Robert wasn't aware he could do this, but he is now getting help to reduce his repayment amount after The Sun stepped in.
If you were overpaid but can't afford the repayments, contact the DWP's debt management helpline on 0800 916 0647.
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The DWP may agree that you can't afford it, in which case you may not need to pay them back, or they may agree to let you pay in smaller instalments or reduce the total amount payable.
You can also write to the DWP at the following address: Debt Management, PO Box 171, Mitcheldean, Gloucestershire GL17 0XG.
Do you have a money problem that needs sorting? Get in touch by emailing [email protected].
You can also join our new Sun Money Facebook group to share stories and tips and engage with the consumer team and other group members.
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