Centrelink debts

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Centrelink debts

On this page, learn about:

  • getting a review of Centrelink debts that aren’t robo-debts (find out if you have a robo-debt)
  • Centrelink's powers in recovering debts
  • making complaints.

On this page:

How do I get a review of Centrelink’s decision to raise a debt?

You have the right to get a review of almost any decision that Centrelink makes about you. This includes a decision to raise a debt. You have the right to ask for a review regardless of whether or not you provide any information to Centrelink.  

If you believe your debt might be an unlawful robo-debt, read How do I know if I have an unlawful robo-debt?

To seek a review, you need to request a review by an authorised review officer (ARO). An ARO is a senior Centrelink officer who has not previously dealt with your matter. The ARO will have a fresh look at the decision and call you to discuss. You can give new information to the ARO to consider. 

The ARO is required to make the ‘correct’ decision based on all the information available. They can increase, decrease or cancel a debt on review. The ARO should send you a detailed letter explaining their decision. 

You can seek an ARO review in the following ways: 

There is no time limit on asking for a review of Centrelink's decision that you have a debt. Even if a debt has been paid back, you can still ask for a review. If a debt is cancelled or reduced because of the review then Centrelink will refund money to you if you have paid more than you should have. If a debt is cancelled on review, any penalty fee should also be waived.  

You can ask for your debt to be put on hold while it is reviewed. This is not automatic and must be requested. This means if you are currently making repayments you can ask for the repayments to be suspended while the review is taking place.  

Actions to recover the debt will restart at the end of any hold period without notice, even if Centrelink has not yet completed the review. You can call and ask for the hold period to be extended if you are still waiting for a review.  

If Centrelink decides not to put your debt on hold, you can request that an ARO review that decision as well, and complain if Centrelink refuses to do so. 

Make sure you ask for a receipt number from Centrelink for every request you make and keep copies of any documents you lodge with Centrelink. 

Further appeal rights

If you are not happy with the decision of the ARO, you can appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). 

The AAT is free and informal but it must apply the same laws as Centrelink does. Centrelink will provide information from your file and the AAT will schedule a hearing where you will have an opportunity to explain why you think the decision is wrong. 

There are two divisions of the AAT that review Centrelink decisions. If you disagree with the outcome of the first Division (Social Security & Child Support), you can apply for a second review by the General Division of the AAT. 

If you have a decision from an ARO and are thinking about appealing to the AAT, you may want to contact Legal Help on 1300 792 387. 

How do I make a complaint about Centrelink?

If you are not happy with the service you have received from Centrelink, you have the right to complain. If you make a complaint while an ARO review is underway, it should not have any negative impact on your review.  

You can complain to: 

If you have suffered loss as a result of Centrelink’s conduct you can apply for compensation under Compensation for Detriment caused by Defective Administration Scheme. For details see the Department of Finance website

What happens if I don’t pay the debt when it is due?

If, by the due date, you do not pay your debt, seek a hold pending review by an ARO, or enter into a payment plan, Centrelink may: 

  • request that the ATO send your tax return to Centrelink to pay off the debt  
  • add an interest charge to the debt 
  • refer the debt to a debt collector 
  • reduce your Centrelink welfare payments 
  • recover the debt from your wages or bank account 
  • take legal action to recover the debt 
  • issue an order to stop you from travelling overseas. 

What if Centrelink takes my tax return?

One of the ways Centrelink can recover a debt is to take all or part of your tax return from the ATO. This can happen without notice. 

Centrelink has indicated they may take a person's tax return if: 

  • their debt is outstanding (and not on hold pending review)  
  • there is no payment arrangement in place, and 
  • they are not currently receiving a Centrelink payment. 

If your debt is cancelled or reduced after your tax return is taken, Centrelink will refund money to you if you have paid more than you should have. 

You also have the right to seek a review of the decision to take your tax return (see How do I get a review of Centrelink's decision to raise a debt?).  

Debt collectors

Centrelink uses external debt collection agencies to follow up debts – Milton Graham, the Probe Group and Australian Receivables Limited (ARL Collect). These agencies may contact you by phone or letter to try and arrange payment of the debt. 

You can still seek a review from an ARO even if your debt has been referred to a debt collector.  

If you have asked for an ARO review and are contacted by a debt collector, you can tell them that you want the debt referred back to Centrelink because you are appealing the debt. If your debt is on hold, you do not have to enter into a payment plan with a debt collector. They will usually allow you some time to contact Centrelink to seek a review and request a hold be put on the debt.  

If you feel that a debt collector is harassing you or giving you misleading information, contact the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on 1300 302 502.

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