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Navigating arising pitfalls that can impact the full commutation strategy for pensions

Meg Heffron
Tony Zhang
15 October 2021 — 3 minute read

When considering the full commutation of a pension for SMSFs, there are several arising pitfalls that shape the technical strategy that will require greater care.

In a recent blog update, Heffron managing director Meg Heffron said that there will always be times when an SMSF might consider a full commutation of pension, such as the desire to move to another superannuation fund, combine the pension with new contributions, or stop getting so much income from super.

However, she noted that it pays to understand the rules as funds can often run into technical issues that can also have a flow-on effect on other aspects of the fund.

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First, Ms Heffron said that any time a pension stops mid-year, it’s important to make sure pension payments are up to date. 

There’s a formula for this purpose, but very broadly speaking, if a market-linked, account-based, or a transition to retirement pension is commuted halfway through the year, then half of the year’s minimum payments must be made first,” she said.

Don’t forget that a partial commutation made earlier in the year won’t count.”

Exempt current pension income (ECPI) can also be a trap for full commutations. Ms Heffron noted, when a pension is fully commuted, it stops being in pension phase and, therefore, stops giving the fund ECPI.

“That might not matter. For example, if the fund is claiming its tax exemption via an actuarial certificate, a full commutation that’s for a very short time (because – say – the money is quickly transferred out to another fund or paid to the member) will have very little impact on the actuarial percentage,” she said.

“But it can be disastrous if the fund is using the ‘segregated method’ for claiming its tax exemption. 

Under this method, the fund will stop being entirely in pension phase as soon as the trustee agrees to the commutation. Income after that time won’t be entirely tax-free. But this might be when all fund assets are sold to pay out the member or transfer to a new fund. In other words, it might be exactly the wrong time to be paying tax!

“There are solutions here – sell the assets before formally commuting the pension. Or use a combination of partial and full commutations if this can’t be done, for example, if the assets are being transferred in-specie.”

Another important consideration is the need to tread very carefully when commuting pensions that started before 1 January 2015, according to Ms Heffron. Account-based pensions before that time were completely ignored for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card (CSHC).

Since this card has no assets test, the generous income test treatment means even people with very large super balances might have access to this card,” she said.

“The rules were changed in 2015, and a deemed income amount is included for any new pensions after this time. Even simply changing funds or stopping a pension to combine it with new contributions could mean losing access to the card. That’s because both involve using the money to start a new – post 1 January 2015 – pension.”

It will also be important to remember to report the commutation to the ATO by preparing a Transfer Balance Account Report (TBAR).

“For SMSFs, the frequency of reporting (quarterly or annually) will have been set way back when the fund had its first reportable event (e.g. the pension starting or 1 July 2017 if it was already in place),” she said.

“But even if the fund isn’t required to report the commutation until it prepares its SMSF Annual Return, it may make sense to bring it forward. Someone with a largish balance who is, for example, winding up their pension to transfer it to another fund is often well-advised to make sure the SMSF’s reporting precedes the new fund’s reporting. Otherwise, the money will be double counted, and the member will potentially be initially assessed as having an excess in their transfer balance account.”

SMSFs also have to remember that some pensions can’t be commuted without special care. For example, a complying lifetime pension can only be commuted if it’s being converted to a market-linked pension or a life office annuity-style product, according to Ms Heffron.

“An existing market-linked pension can’t be commuted unless it’s moved to another market-linked pension.

“A transition to retirement income stream, for example, generally can’t be commuted and paid out to the member – although it can be transferred to another fund or another pension. Importantly, not all commutations are created equally.”   

Tony Zhang

Tony Zhang is a Journalist at SMSF Adviser, which is the leading source of news, strategy and educational content for professionals working in the SMSF sector.

Since joining the team in 2020, Tony has covered various publications across the legal, financial and professional services sectors including Lawyers Weekly, Adviser Innovation, ifa and Accountants Daily.

Navigating arising pitfalls that can impact the full commutation strategy for pensions
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