A Nelson couple have been sentenced after defrauding about $245,000 from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) over 15 years.
Fast-food worker Candice Preston was sentenced today in the Nelson District Court to two years and five months' prison on a string of charges involving false representation to MSD.
Her husband Phillip Walker, who worked as a crane operator, received nine months' home detention on similar charges.
They were each ordered to pay $10,000 in reparations.
The summary of facts said the pair committed a series of offences linked to false information about their living, work and marital situation over 15 years.
It said their deception led to a total loss to the ministry of almost $245,000 and included benefit overpayments to Walker of $89,325.
The summary said Preston was on an independent youth benefit in 2001 when she told the ministry she and Walker had separated.
Their first child was born the following year, and a year after that she was granted the domestic purposes benefit.
Preston also applied for the accommodation supplement using a forged letter. She later used a forged letter to secure a tenancy in a Housing New Zealand property where she lived for four years, and did not disclose she was living with Walker.
Preston continued to receive benefits and allowances, including in 2015 when she received a new $600 fridge, claiming that her old one had broken and she could not afford to replace it.
The summary of facts said days after receiving the new appliance she listed it for sale online, for $780.
It also showed that Walker and Preston had been living together and were in a relationship from before 2003 until 2015, and that Walker had been on a benefit all that time.
A ministry investigation also found Walker had received a domestic purposes benefit for one of their children, when at no time did he have sole care of the child.
Preston was 'young, vulnerable' when introduced to the benefit system
Preston's lawyer, Michael Vesty, sought to have his client avoid prison to allow an opportunity for her to work and pay back some of the money.
And he said the significant impact of media attention would have consequences for her children.
Preston was 16 years old when she was introduced to the benefit system by Walker, he said.
"She was young, vulnerable and subject to influence and she has been on the treadmill since," he said.
Fraud was one of the worst of its kind - judge
The ministry's lawyer, Michael Crehan, said Preston had actively managed the forging of documents to obtain money.
He said offending of that magnitude and duration did not warrant a discounted sentence.
Mr Crehan said the ministry had incurred on average a $300-a-week loss because of their offending.
Judge David Ruth acknowledged Preston's remorse, but said it was one of the worst cases the ministry had come across.
He said Walker's part in the offending had contributed to what was a "substantial fraud", and he needed to pay back the community.