As the name implies, an SMSF (also known as DIY super) is a super private fund that you manage yourself. So it’s no surprise that control is the number one reason people give when asked why they chose to fly solo.
SMSFs give their members control over how their retirement savings are invested. Other reasons for choosing an SMSF include poor performance of an existing public fund and advice from an accountant or financial planner.
According to the latest statistics from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), there are nearly 600,000 SMSFs in Australia. More than 1.1 million Aussies are members of these funds.
So how do SMSFs work, and how do they compare with super public funds?
An overview of SMSF rules
An SMSF must be set up for the sole purpose of providing retirement benefits to its members (or to their dependants if any of the fund members die before retiring).
Setting up an SMSF involves creating a trust (a legal tax structure) with either individual or corporate trustees. Trustees manage the SMSF’s assets and are ultimately responsible for ensuring the fund’s ongoing legal compliance with superannuation and taxation legislation. That compliance includes annual auditing, reporting and taxation obligations to the ATO.
Who can be a member of an SMSF?
All members of an SMSF must also be its trustees. If a fund chooses to have a corporate trustee, each SMSF member must be its director. The company must be registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), and each director of that company must also be a member of its corresponding SMSF.
An SMSF can currently have up to four trustees/members, although there has been discussion about increasing that number to six in future.
To be eligible to become a member (and therefore a trustee) of an SMSF, a person must consent to become a trustee and accept their responsibilities by signing a trustee declaration. SMSF members/trustees cannot:
- Be a registered bankrupt
- Have previously been disqualified as an SMSF trustee by a court, the ATO or ASIC
- Have an employer/employee relationship with another fund member (unless they are a relative).
Young people under the age of 18 can become members of an SMSF, provided they are represented by a trustee who agrees to act on their behalf. This is generally a parent or guardian.
How does an SMSF work?
Trustees manage SMSF funds by making investment decisions. It’s a legal requirement for SMSFs to have a documented investment strategy. This investment strategy should satisfy the sole purpose test and be used to guide trustee decision-making.
Essential factors to consider when developing an SMSF investment strategy include:
- The individual characteristics of fund members, such as their age, current financial situation and risk profile
- The benefits of diversifying the fund’s investments to reduce risk. The significant investment options are fixed-interest products, shares and real estate.
- How easily its assets can be converted to cash to pay future member benefits when required
- The current insurance needs of members to ensure appropriate coverage is arranged.
What are some of the benefits of SMSFs?
Some of the main benefits of SMSFs include:
Greater flexibility with tax
Superannuation can be a tax-effective investment vehicle. SMSFs that comply with super legislation are generally entitled to have their member’s contributions and fund earnings taxed at the concessional superannuation rate of 15% in Australia (up to certain limits).
Also, benefits received after the age of 60 are tax-free. Fund earnings when an SMSF is in pension mode are also tax-free. SMSFs can potentially use tax strategies around capital gains, taxable income or franking credits.
Greater control over investments
SMSF trustees have more control over how their funds are invested. They can invest in many of the products available to public funds and some products that aren’t. For example, SMSFs can invest directly in residential real estate, rather than being restricted to property trusts as many public funds are.
SMSFs can also potentially purchase commercial property, which can then be leased to a related party.
Potentially lower fees on very high super balances
Public super funds typically charge members a percentage fee based on the amount of money they have invested. By comparison, SMSF fees usually aren’t set on fund balances but a flat fee for advice and services.
According to APRA, in June 2017, the average ongoing annual fees for public superannuation funds were 0.8% of member fund balances. This means that a person with a balance of $1.5 million in a typical general super fund would be charged $12,000 in annual fees. This compared with average ongoing costs of $15,900 (1.06%) for SMSFs with the same balance.
However, once balances reach $2 million, average ongoing fees for SMSFs ($13,800 a year or 0.69% of member fund balances) were lower than those for public funds ($13,800 or 0.69%).
In practice, though, there is no such thing as an average fee. The actual prices you pay for your SMSF will depend on the investments you choose and the professional services you use.
One often-overlooked advantage of SMSF funds is that they can provide greater flexibility with member death benefits than public funds.
For example, an SMSF member can arrange for:
- Death benefits to be paid to a dependant as a pension rather than a lump sum, allowing the SMSF to continue operating
- Funds to be distributed to future generations tax-effectively
- Non-cash assets (such as property or shares) to be transferred directly to a beneficiary.
SMSFs provide an effective way of protecting their member’s assets against any future risk of bankruptcy or other creditors’ claims. This can make them especially attractive for business owners and professionals.
Superannuation funds are not considered to be ‘property about the Bankruptcy Act.
What are some of the drawbacks of having an SMSF?
The major drawbacks of having an SMSF include:
The knowledge, time and cost required
Running an SMSF can be time-consuming and costly. There are compliance obligations, such as annual financial statements, a tax return and an independent audit. Although many of these tasks are outsourced, SMSF trustees must still spend time coordinating and overseeing them.
Also, a good knowledge of fundamental investment principles is generally recommended. If trustees don’t have this knowledge, it’s best to seek independent professional financial advice. This advice will, of course, incur a cost.
Higher costs on lower super balances
The flat fees typically charged for SMSF services mean that members with low balances generally are changed more than they would if their funds were invested in public funds.
For example, using the average ongoing annual public super fund fees (0.8% of balances) reported by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) in June 2017, a person with a balance of $100,000 in a public fund would be charged $800 in annual fees. This is significantly cheaper than the $6,400 average yearly fees for SMSFs with the same balance. For balances of $250,000, the average yearly ongoing fees were $2,000 for members of a public fund and $8,150 for SMSFs.
Once again, average fees can be misleading. The actual fees you pay will depend on the investments you choose and the services you use.
Higher insurance costs
Public funds can usually provide lower-cost insurance to their members than SMSFs can. This is because they have large memberships and can negotiate discounted bulk premiums with insurance providers.
Some SMSF members keep some money in a public fund to continue taking advantage of the insurance benefits.
How are SMSFs regulated?
SMSFs are regulated by the ATO (directly) and ASIC (indirectly).
The ATO ensures that SMSFs comply with their financial reporting and taxation obligations.
ASIC manages the registration process for independent SMSF auditors. SMSF auditors play a crucial role in ensuring overall regulatory compliance. They are required to report any breaches to both fund trustees and the ATO.
Heavy penalties can be imposed on SMSF trustees for non-compliance, including:
- Their fund losing its concessional tax treatment
- Being disqualified from their roles (meaning they can no longer be members of the SMSF, nor can they start a new fund)
- Fines or imprisonment, depending on the seriousness of the legislative breach.
What are the differences between an SMSF and other super funds?
The significant differences between an SMSF and other super funds are that:
1. SMSF members are the trustees of their fund
That means they manage the fund and are legally responsible for its compliance with superannuation and tax laws. Public super funds typically have professional, licensed trustees who take on the responsibility for legal compliance.
2. SMSFs can only have a limited number of members
SMSFs can have up to four members. This is generally not viewed as a limitation, as a couple or a single person runs most SMSFs.
There is usually no limit on the number of members that super public funds can have (other than a small APRA fund explained later in this article).
3. SMSF trustees develop their fund’s investment strategy and make all investment decisions
Public super fund members generally can’t choose the specific assets their funds are invested in. However, they usually have some degree of control over the type and mix of their investments.
4. SMSFs are regulated by the ATO and ASIC
APRA regulates public funds.
5. Public fund members have access to the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal to resolve disputes
Public fund members are also eligible for a government compensation scheme in the event of trustee misconduct or fraud.
SMSF members, on the other hand, must resolve their disputes, using legal avenues if necessary.
What is the difference between an SMSF and a super wrap?
A super wrap is an account that is a hybrid of some of the characteristics of a super public fund and an SMSF. Wrap accounts are the responsibility of public funds to the growth of SMSFs.
Members own their underlying investments in a super wrap account but don’t need to be a trustee. People with a fantastic wrap are therefore not responsible for its ongoing administration and legal compliance. Super wrap accounts are regulated by APRA rather than the ATO.
Super wrap account holders often have access to wholesale and institutional investment products that SMSFs don’t, although their investments tend to be primarily in shares, term deposits and cash.
SMSF members have access to a broader range of potential investment assets, such as direct investment in residential or commercial property, which is not available to people with a super wrap.
What is the difference between an SMSF and a small APRA fund?
Small APRA funds are super funds regulated by APRA with fewer than five members and a licensed trustee (unlike SMSFs where fund members are the trustees). Large financial organisations usually offer small APRA funds with an Australian financial services licence issued by ASIC.
A small APRA fund allows investors to control their super investments than they can get with a typical public fund without needing to become a trustee. Small APRA funds also have access to the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal to resolve any member disputes, unlike SMSFs.
The bottom line
An SMSF is a super private fund you manage yourself, giving you more control over how your retirement savings are invested.
However, setting up an SMSF is a big decision that comes with ongoing legal compliance responsibilities, costly and time-consuming.
Ultimately, whether an SMSF is a good option for you depends on circumstances such as:
- Your current super balance
- How much investment knowledge and spare time you have to manage your fund
- The type of assets you want to invest in.
The information contained in this article is general, so it’s best to seek independent professional advice to determine whether setting up an SMSF is appropriate for your circumstances.
SMSF trustees have several administrative obligations to ensure their fund’s compliance with superannuation legislation, including:
- signing and submitting their trustee declaration to the ATO when the fund is set up to indicate they are aware of all their responsibilities,
- ensuring the fund is set up with a trust deed,
- appointing an independent auditor who ASIC licenses,
- valuing fund assets at market value,
- paying the ATO supervisory levy,
- event-based reporting,
- reporting any fund member or trustee changes, and
- maintaining general and financial fund records.
The ATO can impose a range of penalties on SMSF trustees who fail to meet their administrative obligations, depending on the severity of the non-compliance. It may be worthwhile for some trustees to obtain professional advice to help ensure their organisational compliance.