Your guide to super and divorce


'Til death do us part' doesn't always hold true. Separation and divorce are a reality of modern life, and the million dollar question facing many separating couples is 'who gets what?'.

These days, it really can be an issue worth a million dollars. And it's not just about splitting the family home.

Australian Tax Office (ATO) data shows by their late 40s - the peak period for divorce - men have average super savings of $190,716, while women have an average of $142,037.

your guide to divorce and superannuation

That's close to $333,000 in combined super waiting to be carved up. So, it's worth giving some thought to how you'll handle retirement savings.

On the plus side, new laws prevent an ex-spouse trying to hide or lowball the value of their super in a property settlement.

Parties to family law property proceedings can apply to the courts to request details of their ex's super savings through the ATO.

It's a step forward in the fairness stakes, and a well-structured settlement can help set you up financially - especially if you are mindful of future financial needs.

Three ways to handle super in a separation

Essentially three choices are available for managing super following a separation.

Option 1 - Split today

You and your ex can split your combined super savings in whatever proportions you agree on.

Once you've sorted who gets what, you'll need to put the agreement in writing and send a copy to each of your fund trustees.

This is the most commonly used approach according to Industry Super Australia, probably because it draws a line in the sand and lets everyone move on.

Bear in mind though, the basic rules of super still apply. You can't normally access the money until retirement.

Option 2 - Postpone a decision to the future

Can't decide? You can always wait until a future date, such as retirement, to work out how you and your ex will deal with your combined super.

This may be a suitable option if one person has a defined benefit fund, where it can be hard to quantify the value of super savings pre-retirement.

Under this option, the fund will need to be notified of the arrangement. This ensures no withdrawals can be made until the future date/event is reached.

The downside is that you will need to liaise with your ex at some point in the future, and not everyone will be comfortable with this.

Option 3 - Leave super untouched

You don't have to take a slice of your ex's super.

Couples can choose to pool the value of super with other marital assets to determine the overall value of assets to be divided, but leave super benefits in place.

For women this can be a tempting option.

If you have the lion's share of care for any children, for instance, it may seem to work in your favour to aim for a bigger slice of assets that can be accessed now, such as the family home, and let your ex hang onto their super.

But do think ahead.

Already, women retire, on average, with one-third less in super than men.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency warns that many divorced women "have fewer and less lucrative opportunities to build their wealth" compared to divorced men.

Including super in a settlement could be the thing that lets you enjoy a rewarding retirement.

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A former Chartered Accountant, Nicola Field has been a regular contributor to Money for 20 years, and writes on personal finance issues for some of Australia's largest financial institutions. She is the author of Investing in Your Child's Future and Baby or Bust, and has collaborated with Paul Clitheroe on a variety of projects including radio scripts, newspaper columns, and several books.