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When you’re self-employed or working as a contractor, superannuation often takes a back seat. But superannuation is one of the most important financial issues independent contractors must deal with.

Failing to put measures in place while you’re working can leave you with insufficient funds to support the type of lifestyle you’re planning to enjoy in retirement.

The good news for the self-employed and independent contractors is there are super options available. Take a look at the ins and outs of super for the self-employed to get an idea of the steps you’ll need to take to ensure you have enough of a nest egg to fund the retirement you want.

Why do independent contractors need to think about super?

When you’re working as part of a larger company, super is often something that’s taken care of for you. Your employer will be required by law to make compulsory contributions to your superannuation account as part of your overall wage package.

For the self-employed and those on independent contracts, superannuation can work differently.

If you’re a self-employed contractor, you run your own business and don’t work for an employer. In this case, it’s up to you to put a plan in place that will fund your retirement. You can open a super account like anyone else, but it is your responsibility to make contributions, whether they’re regular payments or occasional lump sums.

If you take a contract position with an employer where you are hired wholly or principally for your labour, the employer will be required to pay you super as an employee. If you don’t nominate your own super fund, this superannuation will be paid into a default fund of your employer’s choice. If you take contract positions with several different employers over the course of your career, you could find yourself with multiple super accounts in your name, each one charging you fees.

Why should I open a super account as an independent contractor?

There are many reasons why someone who is self-employed or regularly works on independent contracts might be looking to open their own superannuation account:

  • Grow your wealth – Many super funds are set up to grow wealth for their members. When you’ve opened an account with a superannuation fund as an independent contractor, your deposits will be invested by professionals working for the super fund, with a view to grow the wealth for the fund’s members and increase the balance these members can draw on in retirement.
  • Tax-effective investment – Superannuation can be a tax-effective investment in and of itself, but adding to your super balance can also be a way of reducing the amount of tax you pay on your income. It may be possible to effectively lower your tax bill and grow your nest egg simultaneously.
  • It’s not as hard as it seems – While managing superannuation is a little more difficult for independent contractors than it is for those who have everything taken of by the accounts department, it isn’t as hard as it seems. Many super funds are designed to make super easy for the self-employed. And taking an active interest in your superannuation situation can help make you better-informed, so you can grow your balance.

What are government superannuation co-contributions?

Depending on the amount of money you earn as an independent contractor, you might be eligible for a government super contribution, up to a maximum amount of $500 per year.

This could be a way for many self-employed superannuation account owners to further grow their balance and add to their retirement funds.

Your eligibility to receive a government co-contribution to your super fund may depend on how much super you have deposited into your fund before the end of the financial year, as well as your income and other factors.

When you lodge your tax return, the government will determine whether you’re eligible, and deposit the co-contribution automatically if the super fund has your tax file number attached.

Contact the ATO for more information.

Frequently asked questions

What superannuation details do I give to my employer?

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 should also provide your tax file number – while it’s not a legal obligation, it will ensure your contributions will be taxed at the (lower) superannuation rate.

What is superannuation?

Superannuation is money set aside for your retirement. This money is automatically paid into your superannuation fund by your employer.

Can my employer use money from my superannuation account?

No, your employer can’t touch the money that is paid into your superannuation account.

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).

Click here for more information.

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.

Click here for more information.

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.

Click here for more information.

How can I increase my superannuation?

You can increase your superannuation through a ‘salary sacrifice’. This is where your employer takes part of your pre-tax salary and pays it directly into your superannuation account. Like regular superannuation contributions, salary sacrifices are taxed at 15 per cent when they are paid into the fund.

What happens to my insurance cover if I change superannuation funds?

Some superannuation funds will allow you to transfer your insurance cover, without interruption, if you switch. However, others won’t. So it’s important you check before changing funds.

What are reportable employer superannuation contributions?

Reportable employer superannuation contributions are special contributions that an employer makes on top of the regular compulsory contributions. One example would be contributions made as part of a salary sacrifice arrangement.

Can I buy a house with my superannuation?

First home buyers are the only people who can use their superannuation to buy a property. The federal government has created the First Home Super Saver Scheme to help first home buyers save for a deposit. First home buyers can make voluntary contributions of up to $15,000 per year, and $30,000 in total, to their superannuation account. These contributions are taxed at 15 per cent, along with deemed earnings. Withdrawals are taxed at marginal tax rates minus a tax offset of 30 percentage points.

Voluntary contributions to the First Home Super Saver Scheme are not exempt from the $25,000 annual limit on concessional contributions. So if you pay $15,000 per year into the First Home Super Saver Scheme, you have to make sure that you don’t receive more than $10,000 in superannuation payments from your employer and any salary sacrificing.

What will the superannuation fund do with my money?

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

What happens if my employer goes out of business while still owing me superannuation?

If your employer collapses, a trustee or administrator or liquidator will be appointed to manage the company. That trustee/administrator/liquidator will be required to pay your superannuation out of company funds.

If the company doesn’t have enough funds, in some cases company directors will be required to pay your superannuation. If the directors still don’t pay, the Australian Securities & Investment Commission (ASIC) might take legal action on your behalf. However, ASIC might decline to take legal action or might be unsuccessful.

So there might be some circumstances when you don’t receive all the superannuation you’re owed.

Am I entitled to superannuation if I'm a contractor?

As a contractor, you’re entitled to superannuation if:

  • The contract is mainly for your labour
  • You’re over 18 and earn more than $450 before tax in a calendar month
  • You’re under 18, you work more than 30 hours per week and you earn more than $450 before tax in a calendar month

Please note that you’re entitled to superannuation even if you have an Australian business number (ABN).

What is the age pension's income test?

These are the rules for most people who want to claim the standard pension:

Single people

  • If your income per fortnight is up to $168, you’re entitled to a full pension
  • If your income per fortnight is over $168, your pension will reduce by 50 cents for each dollar over $168

Couples

  • If your income per fortnight is up to $300, you’re entitled to a full pension
  • If your income per fortnight is over $300, your pension will reduce by 50 cents for each dollar over $300

These are the rules for most people who want to claim the transitional pension:

Single people

  • If your income per fortnight is up to $168, you’re entitled to a full pension
  • If your income per fortnight is over $168, your pension will reduce by 40 cents for each dollar over $168

Couples

  • If your income per fortnight is up to $300, you’re entitled to a full pension
  • If your income per fortnight is over $300, your pension will reduce by 40 cents for each dollar over $300

For most people, the age pension cuts off if your fortnightly income exceeds these thresholds:

Category Fortnightly income
Standard pension for singles $1,944.60
Standard pension for couples living together $2,978.40
Standard pension for couples living apart due to ill health $3,853.20
Transitional pension for singles $2,038.00
Transitional pension for couples living together $3,317.00
Transitional pension for couples living apart due to ill health $4,040.00

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

How do I change my superannuation fund?

Changing superannuation funds is a common and straightforward process. You can do it through your MyGov account or by filling out a rollover form and sending it to your new fund. You’ll also have to provide proof of identity.

Is superannuation taxed?

Superannuation is taxed. It is generally taxed at 15 per cent. However, if you earn less than $37,000, you will be automatically reimbursed up to $500 of the tax you paid. Also, if your income plus concessional superannuation contributions exceed $250,000, you will also be charged Division 293 tax. This is an extra 15 per cent tax on your concessional contributions or the amount above $250,000 – whichever is lesser.

How does the age pension work?

Most Australians who are of retirement age can qualify for the age pension. However, depending on the size of your assets and post-retirement income, you might be entitled to only a reduced pension. In some instances, you might not be entitled to any pension payments.

How does superannuation affect the age pension?

Most Australians who are of retirement age can qualify for the age pension. However, depending on the size of your assets and post-retirement income, you might be entitled to only a reduced pension. In some instances, you might not be entitled to any pension payments.

What are my superannuation obligations if I'm an employer?

Employers are required to pay superannuation to all their staff if the staff are:

  • Over 18 and earn more than $450 before tax in a calendar month
  • Under 18, work more than 30 hours per week and earn more than $450 before tax in a calendar month

This applies even if the staff are casual employees, part-time employees, contractors (provided the contract is mainly for their labour) or temporary residents.

How much superannuation should I have?

The amount of superannuation you need to have at retirement is based on how much money you would expect to spend each week during your retirement. That, in turn, depends on whether you expect to lead a modest retirement or a comfortable retirement.

The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) estimates you would need the following amount per week:

Lifestyle Singles Couples
Modest $465 $668
Comfortable $837 $1,150

Here is the superannuation balance you would need to fund that level of spending:

Lifestyle Singles Couples
Modest $50,000 $35,000
Comfortable $545,000 $640,000

These figures come from the March 2017 edition of the ASFA Retirement Standard.

The reason people on modest lifestyles need so much less money is because they qualify for a far bigger age pension.

Here is how ASFA defines retirement lifestyles:

Category Comfortable Modest Age pension
Holidays One annual holiday in Australia One or two short breaks in Australia near where you live Shorter breaks or day trips in your own city
Eating out Regularly eat out at restaurants. Good range and quality of food Infrequently eat out at restaurants. Cheaper and less food Only club special meals or inexpensive takeaway
Car Owning a reasonable car Owning an older, less reliable car No car – or, if you do, a struggle to afford the upkeep
Alcohol Bottled wine Casked wine Homebrew beer or no alcohol
Clothing Good clothes Reasonable clothes Basic clothes
Hair Regular haircuts at a good hairdresser Regular haircuts at a basic salon Less frequent haircuts or getting a friend to do it
Leisure A range of regular leisure activities One paid leisure activity, infrequently Free or low-cost leisure activities
Electronics A range of electronic equipment Not much scope to run an air conditioner Less heating in winter
Maintenance Replace kitchen and bathroom over 20 years No budget for home improvements. Can do repairs, but can’t replace kitchen or bathroom No budget to fix home problems like a leaky roof
Insurance Private health insurance Private health insurance No private health insurance

What are personal contributions?

A personal contribution is when you make an extra payment into your superannuation account. The difference between personal contributions and salary sacrifices is that the former comes out of your after-tax income, while the latter comes out of your pre-tax income.