System to make super assets clearer during divorce needed 'urgently'

Superannuation is considered a household asset, but after divorce or separation some women are walking away without their fair share.

While former couples going though family law proceedings are legally required to disclose all their assets, some people deliberately hide their superannuation.

Tracing down superannuation accounts and their balance is an arduous and expensive process that some people simply cannot afford to pursue.

In 2018, the federal government promised to help women by improving the visibility of superannuation assets during family court proceedings by setting up a new “electronic” system.

But more than two years later, advocates are concerned the “urgent” changes have not been implemented, and the federal opposition is calling on the government to introduce the legislation to implement the new system next week.

‘The time has come now to get this done’
For low-income families in Australia, superannuation is often the largest financial asset to split when a relationship ends.

But retirement savings for women are usually much lower because of their time spent out of the workforce caring for children or working lower paid jobs.

One of the driving forces behind the push to create a better system was the Women’s Legal Service Victoria.

Policy Manager Tania Clarke said the reforms are “long overdue” and she has been “waiting patiently” for years.

“I’m frustrated that it hasn’t been actioned,” she said.

“Many women are forced to walk away from accessing their super entitlements through the family law system, because their abusive partners are withholding financial information from them.

“It’s a very, very simple measure that if implemented, would have a good and long-lasting impact on women who would then be able to access their entitlements.”

CEO of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees Eva Scheerlinck said she was recently “given an assurance” from the Superannuation Minister Jane Hume that the changes were a “priority”.

Eva Scheerlinck from Australian Institute for Superannuation Trustees. Interviewed by 7.30, April 2019
Eva Scheerlinck said she was recently “given an assurance” from the Superannuation Minister Jane Hume that the changes were a “priority”.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette )

“After the year that we’ve just had with COVID, we have seen such an increase in relationship breakdowns, so it is probably more important than ever that these changes are enacted and then implemented,” Ms Scheerlinck said.

“The time has come now to get this done.”

Legislation ‘in the process of being finalised’
When the government announced the planned reforms back in 2018, then attorney-general Christian Porter acknowledged splitting superannuation could be “complex, time-consuming and costly”.

He said parties involved in family law matters were forced to go on “fishing expeditions” using subpoenas and the courts to uncover how much superannuation their former partner might have.

To resolve the matter, the government pledged $3.3 million to develop an “electronic information sharing system” which would make superannuation information held by the ATO visible to the family court during property disputes.

“This new system will ensure faster and fairer resolutions of family law property disputes,” he declared.

Improving the visibility of superannuation assets in family law proceedings was a key plank of the Coalition’s 2018 Women’s Economic Security Statement.

Another measure in that document, which would have allowed victims of domestic violence to use their superannuation to flee harm, was recently dumped by the government after facing widespread criticism.

Shadow Minister for Superannuation Stephen Jones said he was “deeply concerned” the government has not acted to improve data sharing between courts and the ATO.

A white man with short brown hair wearing a suit and a red tie speaking to a report who is blurred out in the foreground
Shadow Minister for Superannuation Stephen Jones said he was “deeply concerned” the government has not acted to improve data sharing between courts and the ATO. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore )

“We’ve had six separate ministers promise this over three years, and still no action,” he said.

“That means that women are missing out on literally millions of dollars and litigation in family courts is costing a lot more than it should.

“There’s no reason why the government can’t bring legislation into the parliament next week.”

After being contacted by the ABC on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Superannuation Minister Jane Hume, who also holds the title of Women’s Economic Security, said the government would begin consulting soon.

“Given their complex and sensitive nature the legislation is in the process of being finalised and the government will shortly consult,” the statement said.

“The government has funded the Australian Taxation Office to develop an electronic information sharing system to improve visibility of superannuation assets in family law property disputes.

“This will make it harder for parties to hide or under-disclose assets, which can lead to unfair outcomes for women.”

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