A PENSIONER has appeared in court after claiming more than £11,000 in benefits she was not entitled to because she spent several months every year living in Bulgaria.

Patricia Richards walked free from court on Friday despite Judge Peter Armstrong warning her that the offence passed the custody threshold.

Teesside Crown Court heard how 69-year-old Richards and her husband bought two properties in Bulgaria in 2008.

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From 2009 to 2012, Richards, from North Yorkshire, claimed pension credit but failed to inform officials that she was living abroad for more than 13 weeks a year.

The court heard she had received £11,554 she was not entitled to.

When it emerged she was living abroad, Richards was questioned and admitted owning two adjoining properties which she said were “practically worthless due to being in a bad state of repair”.

She admitted knowing the rules about claiming pension credit and living abroad, but said she had never informed the authorities about her Bulgaria homes because she knew “the s*** would hit the fan”.

The court heard she lived in Bulgaria because it was cheap and would like to live there permanently if she had the money.

Joanne Kidd, mitigating, said her client had come to court with a bag packed full of medication ready for prison.

The barrister said Richards had worked hard all her life, but had been left needing to claim pension credit because her employer had failed to pay her national insurance.

This meant she was left with a state pension of just £2 a week.

Richards, of Grange Road, Bedale, pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to inform the Department for Work and Pensions of a change of circumstance at an earlier hearing.

A photograph highlighting the dilapidated state of the Bulgarian properties was shown to the judge by Richards’ barrister.

Sentencing her to a 12-month community order with a 12-month supervision requirement, Judge Armstrong told the defendant: “There’s not going to be a custodial sentence, but if you breach the terms of the community order there is that possibility.”

A proceeds of crime hearing will be held to recover the overpayment.

The judge suggested the pensioner would have to sell the properties in Bulgaria to pay back the money she was overpaid.

"Perhaps Bulgaria is the new Croatia," he added.