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Why only four members in an SMSF?

Question from Stuart Wilson

I would like to know why SMSF's are limited to less than 5 members. My family has in excess of 4 people in it and when including siblings spouses and children, many, many more than 4.

We currently have 4 separate SMSF's which quadruples the costs and time involved in managing the funds. As a very hands on SMSF trustee, we manage all of the investments and try to complete as much of the accountancy work as we can before handing the accounts to the accountant but the costs are still 4 times what they would be if we could run a single SMSF with more members.

Many articles and companies highlight the minimum investment required in a SMSF to make it viable when considering costs, surely and increase in the number of members allowed would enable more people to benefit from establishing a SMSF.

The restriction on membership seems to be an added cost to those people wanting to establish a SMSF.

Thanks, Stuart Wilson

Reply from Ramani Venkatramani, who is an actuary and between 1996 and 2011, he was a senior executive at ISC /APRA, supervising pension funds.

SMSF's predecessor, 'the excluded fund' was regulated by Insurance and Superannuation Commission with all other complying funds, with the idea that those who wish to control their own retirement savings should be able to do so, with basic requirements being met. It was considered that in order for the control to be properly exercised, the number of members should not exceed 4, as the option of going into the bigger sectors (corporate, industry or retail) was open.

Wallis Committee in 1997 recommended its continuation with the regulation shifting to ATO and a prohibition on trustee remuneration. The limit of 4 was retained.


While the number 4 itself is arbitrary, the idea is to keep it small and manageable. The possibilities of lifting the number, or changing the definition (to say, all members of a family regardless of number) were suggested during the Cooper review but were not accepted.


As there is no limit on how many SMSFs can be set up by someone, for more than 4, two or more SMSFs can be used under the current limit.

(We have also approached ASIC for a response).

Philip La Greca
December 20, 2013

The other rationale for the limit relates to how the decision-making process works in the multi-member funds and the number of members that could be overridden.

The SIS law does not specify so the general principle is a majority of trustees/directors rules. Thus with a two member fund both must agree, for a three member fund then two out of three and for a four member fund three out of four. In these cases then only ever one person's wishes are not met. If we take this to five members however then we end up with three out of five so more members are not satisfied with the outcome.

This would require a statutory basis for decision-making and anything else than a unanimous decision would always result in some low cap of member numbers. Even 75% for a 10-member fund would mean two outvoted members.

If you consider how difficult it is to get 5 people to agree on how to split a lunch bill consider the outcomes when you are talking about peoples retirement savings.

Andrew Bloore
December 04, 2013

This has been an issue which has been discussed over and over and the answer has been the same every time, no change to the numbers. In fact the outcome of this restriction has not been a growth in the number of member it has actually seen the number of members on average decline from 15 years ago when it was approximately 2.2 member on average per fund to where it is today at 1.9. That said families need solutions. There are two different issues here, the first being the tax and structural issues of the fund and who can be a member of it (to a maximum of 4, or more technically correct, fewer than 5) and secondly how to simply manage the assets of the funds efficiently.

Having 2 funds does not necessarily mean you need to duplicate the investment process into two funds. For example you can set up a bare trust to hold all of the assets of many funds and invest them from 1 single pool to make the investment management of the assets simple. Say you have 10 members in the family, you obviously need at least 3 fund structures but you can invest via 1 holding or bare trust and simply account for the position in each tax entity in their correct proportion. This really is a simple administration function. Yes you still need 3 tax returns (one for each fund) but it dramatically reduces the administration time from an accounting point of view and simplifies the Trustees lives. Furthermore the SIS Act specifically allows the trustees to appoint an investment manager - say a patriarch, who can be responsible for managing the group assets.

Everyone seems to focus on the issue of the 4 members rather than saying well if we can only have four members how do I make my life as easy as possible within the legislation. What ends up happening is each fund ends up with different assets and one person trying to work of what goes where. There are simple solutions to all this. As always go to a superannuation professional administrator and ask how to make the fund work for you, not the other way around.

Christopher Dodson
January 11, 2017

Hi Andrew,

I am interested in your comment as I do not believe it is possible for related SMSF's to invest in a bare trust or unit trust which holds anything other than property and cash.

Are you able to provide references on how this can be completed?


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