What is an SMSF?

An SMSF is a self-managed superannuation fund. SMSFs allow members to directly invest their own retirement savings, instead of paying others to do it on their behalf.

About 30 per cent of Australia’s superannuation assets are held in SMSFs, while about 70 per cent are held in funds that are managed by professional advisers.

Although the point of an SMSF is to have direct control over investment decisions, there are rules about what members can and can’t do with their money. That’s because the government doesn’t want people to make poor decisions and lose their retirement savings.

What is an SMSF investment strategy?

All SMSFs are required to have a documented investment strategy. This investment strategy must explain the fund’s investment objectives and what types of investment it can make. It must also consider whether insurance is needed for each member.

An SMSF investment strategy must be reviewed at least once per year to ensure it remains relevant.

SMSFs are allowed to buy shares, property and various other assets, although restrictions apply. All purchases must be made on an arms-length basis, while prices must reflect fair market value. As a general rule, SMSFs can’t buy assets from fund members or related parties. Also, SMSFs are generally prohibited from borrowing money. One exception is using a limited-recourse borrowing arrangement to buy an investment property.

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How do I set up an SMSF?

Setting up an SMSF is complicated, so you might want to pay an accountant or financial adviser to oversee the process.

The first step is to choose a structure for the SMSF. You can have either up to four individual trustees or one corporate trustee. Different structures impose different financial and legal obligations.

The second step is to create the trust, which requires having trustees and assets. You must then create a trust deed – a legal document that records the rules of the trust.

Trustees also have to be officially appointed. This is done by getting them to sign a declaration, acknowledging their legal obligations.

Next, you have to check that the SMSF meets Australian residency conditions, register the fund, set up a bank account for the fund and get an electronic service address.

Finally, you must prepare an exit strategy. This is another official document that explains why and how the SMSF would close – including what would happen to the money.

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How is an SMSF taxed?

Assessable income generated by SMSFs is generally taxed at the concessional rate of 15 per cent. Some exceptions apply.

What compliance obligations does an SMSF have?

SMSFs have a range of annual obligations, including:

  • Appointing an approved SMSF auditor
  • Preparing financial accounts and statements
  • Lodging an annual return
  • Making any minimum income stream payments
  • Reviewing the fund’s investment strategy
  • Valuing the fund’s assets
  • Obtaining an actuarial certificate (if required)

SMSFs are also required to maintain all relevant records – some for as long as 10 years.

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Learn more about superannuation

How do I set up an SMSF?

Setting up an SMSF takes more work than registering with an ordinary superannuation fund. 

An SMSF is a type of trust, so if you want to create an SMSF, you first have to create a trust.

To create a trust, you will need trustees, who must sign a trustee declaration. You will also need identifiable beneficiaries and assets for the fund – although these can be as little as a few dollars.

You will also need to create a trust deed, which is a document that lays out the rules of your SMSF. The trust deed must be prepared by a qualified professional and signed by all trustees.

To qualify as an Australian superannuation fund, the SMSF must meet these three criteria:

  • The fund must be established in Australia – or at least one of its assets must be located in Australia
  • The central management and control of the fund must ordinarily be in Australia
  • The fund must have active members who are Australian residents and who hold at least 50 per cent of the fund’s assets – or it must have no active members

Once your SMSF is established and all trustees have signed a trustee declaration, you have 60 days to apply for an Australian Business Number (ABN).

When completing the ABN application, you should ask for a tax file number for your fund. You should also ask for the fund to be regulated by the Australian Taxation Office – otherwise it won’t receive tax concessions.

Your next step is to open a bank account in your fund’s name. This account must be kept separated from the accounts held by the trustees and any related employers.

Your SMSF will also need an electronic service address, so it can receive contributions.

Finally, you will need to create an investment strategy, which explains how your fund will invest its money, and an exit strategy, which explains how and why it would ever close.

Please note that you can pay an adviser to set up your SMSF. You might also want to take the Self-Managed Superannuation Fund Trustee Education Program, which is a free program that has been created by CPA Australia and Chartered Accountants Australia & New Zealand.

What is an SMSF investment strategy?

All SMSFs are required to have an investment strategy, which should explain what assets the fund will buy and what objectives it will pursue. This strategy must be reviewed regularly.

Issues to consider include how much risk the SMSF will take, how easily its assets can be converted into cash and how it will pay out benefits.

What is an SMSF?

An SMSF is a self-managed superannuation fund. SMSFs have to follow the same rules and restrictions as ordinary superannuation funds.

SMSFs allow Australians to directly invest their superannuation, rather than let ordinary funds manage their money for them.

SMSFs are regulated by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). They can have up to four members. All members must be trustees (or directors if there is a corporate trustee).

Unlike with ordinary funds, SMSF members are responsible for meeting compliance obligations.

How are SMSFs allowed to invest their funds?

SMSFs can invest in conventional assets such as shares, term deposits, managed funds and property.

SMSFs can also buy ‘collectibles’ such as artwork, jewellery, antiques, coins, stamps, vintage cars and wine – although there are special rules that apply to collectibles.

Investments must be made on an arm’s length basis, which means that assets must be bought and sold at market prices, while income must reflect the market rate of return.

As a general rule, SMSFs can’t buy assets from members or related parties.

How do I wind up an SMSF?

There are five things you must do if you want to close your SMSF:

  1. Fulfil any obligations listed in the trust deed
  2. Pay out or roll over all the superannuation
  3. Conduct a final audit
  4. Lodge a final annual return
  5. Close the fund’s bank account

What compliance obligations does an SMSF have?

SMSFs must maintain comprehensive records and submit to annual audits.

What is MySuper?

MySuper accounts are basic, low-fee accounts. If you don’t nominate a superannuation fund, your employer must choose one for you that offers a MySuper account.

MySuper accounts offer two investment options:

  1. Single diversified investment strategy

Your fund assigns you a risk strategy and investment profile, which remain unchanged throughout your working life.

  1. Lifecycle investment strategy

Your fund assigns you an investment strategy based on your age, and then changes it as you get older. Younger workers are given strategies that emphasise growth assets

What should I know before getting an SMSF?

Four questions to ask yourself before taking out an SMSF include:

  1. Do I have enough superannuation to justify the higher set-up and running costs?
  2. Am I able to handle complicated compliance obligations?
  3. Am I willing to spend lots of time researching investment options?
  4. Do I have the skill to make big financial decisions?

It’s also worth remembering that ordinary superannuation funds usually offer discounted life insurance and disability insurance. These discounts would no longer be available if you decided to manage your own super.

How long after divorce can you claim superannuation?

You or your partner could be forced to surrender part of your superannuation if you divorce, just like with other assets.

You can file a claim for division of property – including superannuation – as soon as you divorce. However, the claim has to be filed within one year of the divorce.

Your superannuation could be affected even if you’re in a de facto relationship – that is, living together as a couple without being officially married.

In that case, the claim has to be filed within two years of the date of separation.

Either way, the first thing to consider is whether you’re a member of a standard, APRA-regulated superannuation fund or if you’re a member of a self-managed superannuation fund (SMSF), because different rules apply.

Standard superannuation funds

If your relationship breaks down, your superannuation savings might be divided by court order or by agreement.

The rules of the superannuation fund will dictate whether this transfer happens immediately, or in the future when the person who has to make the transfer is allowed to access the rest of their superannuation (i.e. at or near retirement).

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SMSFs

If your relationship breaks down, you must continue to observe the trust deed of your SMSF.

So if you and your partner are both members of the same SMSF, neither party is allowed to use the fund to inflict ‘punishment’ – such as by excluding the other party from the decision-making process or refusing their request to roll their money into another superannuation fund.

This no-punishment rule applies even if the two parties are involved in legal proceedings.

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Financial consequences

Superannuation funds often charge a fee for splitting accounts after a relationship breakdown.

Splitting superannuation can also impact the size of your total super balance and how your super is taxed.

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What are the risks and challenges of an SMSF?

  • SMSFs have high set-up and running costs
  • They come with complicated compliance obligations
  • It takes a lot of time to research investment options
  • It can be difficult to make such big financial decisions

Can I carry on a business in an SMSF?

SMSFs are allowed to carry on a business under two conditions.

First, this must be permitted under the trust deed.

Second, the sole purpose of the business must be to earn retirement benefits.

What is the superannuation rate?

The superannuation rate, or guarantee rate, is the percentage of your salary that your employer must pay into your superannuation fund. The superannuation guarantee has been set at 9.5 per cent since the 2014-15 financial year. It is scheduled to rise to 10.0 per cent in 2021-22, 10.5 per cent in 2022-23, 11.0 per cent in 2023-24, 11.5 per cent in 2024-25 and 12.0 per cent in 2025-26.

What will the superannuation fund do with my money?

Your money will be invested in an investment option of your choosing.

How do you open a superannuation account?

Opening a superannuation account is simple. When you start a job, your employer will give you what’s called a ‘superannuation standard choice form’. Here’s what you need to complete the form:

  • The name of your preferred superannuation fund
  • The fund’s address
  • The fund’s Australian business number (ABN)
  • The fund’s superannuation product identification number (SPIN)
  • The fund’s phone number
  • A letter from the fund trustee confirming that the fund is a complying fund; or written evidence from the fund stating it will accept contributions from your new employer; or details about how your employer can make contributions to the fund

You might want to provide your tax file number as well – while it’s not a legal obligation, it will ensure your contributions will be taxed at the (lower) superannuation rate.