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Meg on SMSFs: when should I get rid of my SMSF?

In a monthly column to assist trustees, specialist Meg Heffron explores major issues relating to managing your SMSF.

In last month’s article, I explained why I started my SMSF at a relatively young age and why I am glad I did.

But a reader raised a good point that can be translated as:

  • How will I know when it’s time to wind up my SMSF?
  • Then what will I do?
  • Will it be difficult?

How will I know when it’s time to wind up my SMSF?

The flippant answer is “when I don’t want to do it anymore” but in fact, that’s not a bad place to start. These days, I’m the only member of my fund and the sole director of my trustee company, so it’s up to me. Right now, I’m happy to have my SMSF. But perhaps when I retire, I will have zero interest in SMSFs including my own? Not wanting to do the work anymore would be a completely valid reason to wind up my fund.

At some point, my ability to look after my fund might start to fade (dementia, other health problems). At that point, I’ll talk to my sons before assuming it’s time to wind up my SMSF. If one or both of them are willing and able to take over running it for me, I’ll leave it intact and just hand over the reins to them.

Neither of them know much about super or SMSFs in particular so, if a handover looks likely, I’ll need to involve them sooner rather than later so I can help in the early days. I could even invite them to become members and we could be trustees together for a time.

At this stage, I still see that as a long way off and will only do it if it’s necessary. In the normal course of events, I’m not keen on having multiple generations in the same SMSF. Even if they did join my SMSF, I’d suggest they left most of their super in their own fund, as one day, they will have families of their own and want to manage their finances with their spouse, not with me.

And that may never happen. Plenty of my clients continue their SMSFs into their 90s. The nature of the help they buy in (or receive informally from the next generation) changes over time but they are still actively engaged in their own super planning and value the flexibility their SMSF provides well into old age. They are my inspiration.

But as passionate as I am about my SMSF, I would wind it up if I wasn’t able to look after it and my sons didn’t want to. I believe an SMSF’s main attraction is that it opens up opportunities. If my sons don’t want to run it, they probably won’t make the most of those opportunities anyway, so why ask them to take on the responsibility?

Death of a member may be a catalyst

For some people, the death of a member is often a driver to wind up and there are probably two reasons for this.

The first is that with two people in an SMSF together, there is almost always one person more engaged than the other. If that person dies, it’s common for the survivor to wind up, often depending on age. Someone who loses the 'active' spouse in their 50s probably won’t wind up the SMSF – they will learn how to do it and probably surprise themselves with their own capability. But someone in their 90s might make a different decision. Both are completely reasonable.

The second reason death is a trigger is that it’s frequently a moment when the fund has to pay large amounts out of super so the fund inevitably gets smaller.

Deceasing assets and tax on inheritance

Decreasing assets is a trigger for winding up an SMSF as at some point, it can stop being cost effective. In fact, it’s worth identifying early – based on the particular features of the SMSF – how low the asset value would need to be to encourage winding up.

These are not decisions to be taken lightly but there will be a threshold where that makes sense for everyone. And remember the transition point is different when your balance is on the way up versus when it’s declining. A young person with a growing super balance may be happy to take on higher costs in the short term for longer-term gain. That won’t make sense for someone with a declining balance so if cost is a key driver for change, getting out of an SMSF might make sense at a higher balance than you expect.

Another wind-up driver might be tax. Once my sons are financially independent (said with firmly crossed fingers) any super they inherit from me will be subject to tax – mostly at 15%. While that sounds like an innocuously low rate, it adds up when you remember it will be applied to my superannuation capital. It might be a big dollar number.

So in the ideal world, I would proactively remove most or even all my money from super (which might mean winding up my SMSF) before I die. Just not too early because it’s very tax effective for me during my lifetime. That’s another reason why 90-year-olds who’ve just lost the active member of their SMSF often choose to wind up. They are reaching the point where they want to protect the next generation from tax. They don’t just exit their SMSF, they exit superannuation entirely.

And of course there are host of other triggers to wind up that might apply in other cases. Relationship breakdown (sometimes an SMSF makes sense when there are two people but not if there’s only one), the sale of an asset that was the primary driver for the SMSF in the first place or even serious breaches of the law that mean the fund and its trustees have attracted the ire of the ATO.

Once I decide to wind up, what will happen?

Winding up will mean removing all the assets from my fund. It doesn’t matter whether I sell them all or just move them ‘in specie’ to their new home (another super fund, my own name outside super, etc), either way the change triggers a capital gain. There are smart ways to manage that capital gain that can mean it’s sensible to manage the wind up over a few years. That’s a decision to make at the time. The key is to think about it carefully to get the best possible result.

If the money is going to another fund, I (or my sons) will need to choose one and probably make decisions about investment options in that fund. All decisions don’t suddenly disappear just because there’s no longer an SMSF involved. My fund’s accountant will need to do some paperwork.

For example, I have pensions in my SMSF so my accountant would need to tell the ATO that they’ve stopped. Ideally, we want to do that before my new fund tells the ATO that they’ve started some new ones for me in their fund. Otherwise, the ATO will think I’ve got both and will assume I’ve gone over the limit known as my ‘transfer balance cap’.

There is also data to be provided to the new fund in a specific format – again something my accountant will handle. And I might need their help when transferring the money from my SMSF to my new fund if my SMSF’s bank restricts the amount I can transfer.

Of course, the money might not be going to another fund. Someone whose superannuation is no longer ‘preserved’ (say they are over 65) can generally just take the money out of super entirely and invest it in their own name. This requires slightly different paperwork.

There’s a final annual return and audit but in reality, they are just like the returns done every other year. Often one of the reasons SMSF wind ups feel like they go on forever is that the fund’s bank account is often left open to receive the final tax refund and this won’t happen until that last return is done.

There are factors that can make wind ups much harder, for example, if the fund has very old-style pensions (often called legacy pensions), reserves, assets that can’t be sold etc. But these can usually be solved with some perseverance and the right advice.

So, my SMSF will definitely end one day, and possibly before I die. When the time comes, I will treat it as a process that happens over a few financial years, not because it has to take that long but because that’s probably how I’ll get the best outcome.


Meg Heffron is the Managing Director of Heffron SMSF Solutions, a sponsor of Firstlinks. This is general information only and it does not constitute any recommendation or advice. It does not consider any personal circumstances and is based on an understanding of relevant rules and legislation at the time of writing.

To view Heffron's latest SMSF Trustee webinar, 'Super contributions unpacked', click here (requires name and email address to view). For more articles and papers from Heffron, please click here.


October 22, 2022

How interesting that even at Death Tax is a worry ?
I Understand that :
17% tax at death ,Funds going to Beneficiaries
15% tax at death, Funds going to Estate
Tax is applicable to only Taxable component of the Benefits.

Meg Heffron
October 23, 2022

For people over 65 you're right Shiraz - and the difference is the medicare levy (estates don't pay this but individual beneficiaries do). The only time tax rates are lower (eg $nil) is if the benefit is inherited by (say) a spouse or minor child.

But I think the reason people worry about tax on death is because it's applied to capital. As I've said in the article that can be a big number. Someone with $1m in super who has a taxable component of half this amount ($500,000) will have $75,000 in tax deducted from their estate (15% x $500,000) if their super is inherited by (say) adult, financially independent children via the estate.

October 22, 2022

Good article Meg. I have done a lot of investigation on the best way to close a fund painlessly. There does not seem an easy way, short of 18 months. However I have had a thought. My fund is in 100% pension mode.Half my fund is in market-linked assets and easy to, managed funds and direct shares plus cash. What If I were to convert to cash and roll those proceeds to an industry fund and start a pension at the required rate. The other holdings are unlisted and illiquid. If I transferred those in specie to me and my wife (we are trustees) currently of the SMSF. Those holdings produce about 60k in income . You are allowed $18200 tax free each,which would mean we would only pay a small amount of tax. Seems easier then taking what could be a long time to sell unlisted holdings. Interested in your view.

October 22, 2022

"My fund is in 100% pension mode.":
Likely due to age 65+ and thus also an income taxation 'senior'.

"Those holdings produce about 60k in income . You are allowed $18200 tax free each":
SAPTO & LITO & LAMITO offsets increase seniors the tax free threshold to $31,926.20 each.
No need for super fund retired ('pension') account.
Holding assets in company rather than personally allows profits to be retained and paid as dividends at the most tax advantageous rate.

Meg Heffron
October 22, 2022

Thanks Bob - the key point you've highlighted here which I think is a really good one is that if you want to wind up your SMSF, you don't have to do the same thing with all the assets. Some people we see definitely take an approach like yours - they leave the assets that can easily be moved to another fund (or converted to cash and the cash put in another fund) in super and cash out the illiquid / unlisted assets that they want to continue to own but either (i) can't hold them in the new fund or (ii) can't easily convert to cash in the SMSF. Sometimes people do it the way you're suggesting or other times they pay out these illiquid assets to themselves FIRST while the pension is still running in the SMSF (treating the in specie payment as a "partial commutation"). In some cases that gives a better CGT result because the gains on the illiquid assets are realised while the fund is still getting a tax exemption on its investment income. I think I mentioned in another comment that this wind up phase is one where it's crucial to get good advice because the order of events can make all the difference.

One thing to watch if you're putting assets in your own name is how they're treated for things like the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card (taking them out of a super pension might mean more income is counted for the card's income test). But you may have seen that the income thresholds for this card have increased enormously in recent times and so most people can have much more income than used to be possible before it threatens their eligibility for the card.

mike p
October 22, 2022

Hi Meg, if you can answer these questions, that that would be fantastic.
I am in late 50s, I have smsf. I have unrealised cap loss ( shares where the purchase price are high, bought before global financial downturn, especially the bank shares ). i know you pay tax when smsf is in accumulation phase, you dont when in pension phase.
So the questions, all things being equal, shd i realised the cap loss in accum or pension phase. i dont know whether i would have enough realised cap gains to offset this realised cap loss, meaning one day, i will have to sell shares to fund my pension phase, some of my shares will give me cap gains and some will give me cap loss.

Meg Heffron
October 22, 2022

There's probably a bit more in this than I can answer in my response here Mike - so apologies, I won't try and cover everything but I can offer a few pointers. I'd definitely suggest talking to your accountant / adviser further on this. My immediate comments are:
- I think the point you're making here is that selling those shares would trigger a capital loss. And your capital loss can be used to reduce the tax you pay on capital gains. Hence in some ways, these capital losses are only useful to you if you also have some capital gains at some point.
- Your concern is that if you're going to be 100% in pension phase one day, you won't have any tax to pay on your capital gains anyway so will you effectively get no value out of the losses? The short answer is ... maybe. Certainly, if you never realise any capital gains that have the potential to be taxed, you won't be able to use your carried forward capital losses.
But don't forget:
- even funds in pension phase sometimes pay tax - perhaps because the whole fund can't go into pension phase or because there are two members and they go into pension phase at different times. So your losses might be more useful than you think.
- don't forget too that if your fund receives trust distributions from a managed fund, those distributions might include capital gains. Your losses can be offset against those capital gains as well.

Jim Butler
October 20, 2022

A friend of mine got rid of his SMSF and transferred to an Industry fund. He said he could transfer his Allocated Pension assets but he could not transfer his Market Linked Pension assets. Is that correct?

Meg Heffron
October 22, 2022

I'm not surprised Jim - a lot of people with old style pensions like market linked pensions find this challenge. The problem is that those pensions have to be rolled over to another market linked pension - they can't go to an account-based / allocated pension. Not many public offer funds provide market linked pensions any more - and even those that do have often closed them to new members which means your friend couldn't transfer in there. There are still a few around but definitely hard to find. Your friend might need to keep looking to find a fund that can still take market linked pension rollovers OR check how many years it has left to run. If it's not many, he might be able to leave this in his SMSF until it ends. These pensions all have a pre-determined end date as they only run for a specific number of years.

October 19, 2022

A factor which you briefly touch on Meg is diminished mental capacity. As people age sometimes their minds aren't quite as sharp as they used to be and people may feel that they're no longer up to running a self managed super fund, even with the benefit of an adviser or an accountant if they have one to help them out.

Which leads to another possible catalyst, your adviser or more likely your accountant retiring. When they go some people decide that they've had enough of a SMSF and it's time to either take the money out of super or move it to a retail/industry fund.

Meg Heffron
October 22, 2022

You're possibly right - the retirement of a trusted adviser could also be a trigger to wind up the fund - simply because the support network you've had to run it is no longer there. Perhaps that's where the depth of the firm becomes important? I've had the same adviser for over 10 years. He's a similar vintage to me. But I've noticed that more and more I'm dealing with one of his younger associates. Fortunately for me, the associate is also incredibly competent but it's perhaps valuable for all of us to get very comfortable (and in fact embrace) being handed over to the next generation within the firm. It means they will still be around when I've lost my marbles and can hopefully steer my kids well.

Graham W
October 19, 2022

I am very impressed with Meg's article and her comprehensive answers to queries.
I would think that having a property in a SMSF could become a real issue when minimum drawdowns return to their previous levels. The draw down levels are based on the total asset value of the fund including the property. Funding those drawdowns could be difficult then depending on the property's value. So property can be a very problematic asset of a SMSF when the beneficiaries reach their eighties.

Meg Heffron
October 19, 2022

Thanks Graham - that's very kind. You're right, property investments do often cause challenges for pension funds because fundamentally the pension factors are designed to draw down capital over time. A few things people sometimes do to address that:
- turn off / turn down their pensions (SIS no longer REQUIRES us to convert our super to pensions at any time) - but of course that might mean CGT when the property is sold
- bringing in other family members who are still accumulating and in particular, contributing and providing cash flow for pension payments. Effectively "ownership" of the property shifts over time to those members (everyone shares proportionately in all assets but their balance goes up while the pensioner's goes down).
For today's large funds, this is less of a problem because only around $1.7m of a larger balance is in pension phase - so pension payments are only demanded on part of the balance while the whole fund is generating returns that can be used to finance those payments.
But yes, property and any other non divisible assets can be a problem for pension funds. These days (post 1 July 2017) they are also a problem for death of one member of a couple. If that moment triggers the requirement to pay out (say) half the fund, but the whole fund is tied up in 1 property, the trustee will be in a very tricky position. It's a looming problem I think because the current laws have only been this way for 5 years. Before then, when one member of a couple died, the survivor could take all of their super as a pension (no transfer balance cap) and therefore leave it all in super if they wanted to.

Jon Kalkman
October 19, 2022

My understanding is that if an SMSF, wholly in pension phase, makes a sale of assets, there is no capital gains tax, because all super funds that pay a pensions are tax-exempt. If it is in accumulation phase there is CGT, but only at 10%. Meg has not drawn that distinction. If the Transfer Balance Cap has forced some of the super into an accumulation fund, then there will be CGT on that portion of the super. The other issue is that removal of the funds before death avoids the tax on death benefits paid by beneficiaries but timing that can be tricky unless you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Meg Heffron
October 19, 2022

Great points Jon - I always wish I had a much higher word count as there are often many things like this worth exploring.

One of the great things about pensions in super (any fund, not just an SMSF) is this ability to sell assets with reduced or even no capital gains tax. There is actually some really smart planning you can do when you've decided to wind up but don't have a fund that is entirely in pension phase so that you minimise the CGT you pay. For example, you can pick assets that have lot capital gains (or cash) and transfer them first and specifically decide to transfer only your accumulation account(s). Then the FOLLOWING year you're left with only pension accounts (so entirely CGT free) and that's when you choose to transfer or sell the assets with very large capital gains. This is the kind of thing that definitely requires careful planning and good advice is invaluable.

When it comes to removing assets before death, you're also right - with perfect knowledge of the future and the ability to plan, we would all manage to avoid that tax on death but it's not always possible. One thought I was exploring in the article (perhaps not particularly clearly) was that when you have a couple, this death benefits tax doesn't apply if the super is inherited by a surviving spouse. But obviously someone always dies second. That's why we often see a change in thinking when the FIRST member of a couple dies, particularly if they are both elderly when it happens. The survivor - at 90 - says "it seems that the chances of my super being inherited by an adult child are now much higher than they were yesterday. I will start clearing out my super". In other words, their partner's death has been the trigger for change in their thinking about their own super.

Kenneth C
October 19, 2022

Probably in common with a lot of SMSFs, our fund owns a property. The property gives a consistent return after all costs have been paid. We are in our early-mid 70s but in the next few years we will want to close the SMSF for the reasons you discuss and, like David C, move the funds to an industry fund. We don't want to sell the property until we have to but what can we do with it? You mention in specie transfers but is that possible with industry funds? Can we transfer it out of the SMSF to our own names? If so, what are the tax consequences of doing that if we do it while in accumulation mode? In pension mode?

Meg Heffron
October 19, 2022

You definitely won't be able to transfer the property to an industry fund and whether or not the fund will accept in specie transfers of other assets like listed shares will depend on the individual fund (for example, a lot of retail funds accept that but I'm not sure about industry funds). You can almost certainly transfer the assets out to your own names (as a benefit payment) whether you are in pension phase or still accumulating (or a bit of both). There are some tips and traps here (for example, in specie transfers have to be treated as lump sums and so don't count towards meeting your usual pension payment requirements) but it can normally be done. Generally the only barrier is where you have something unusual such as a highly restrictive, old style pension that prohibits this type of transaction. But whether that is a good idea will depend on your personal circumstances. For example, some people choose to leave as much of their wealth as possible in a super fund (even if it's no longer their SMSF) because they save tax by earning their investment returns in super rather than in their own name. Others do the sums and conclude that it doesn't make much difference either way so it's now fine to have their investments in their own name.

October 19, 2022

Stamp duty, in addition to CGT, may be a factor to consider.

Dave Roberts
October 19, 2022

Thanks Meg,
This article has given me a lot to think about.
In a SMSF with just two trustees (husband and wife) when one dies how hard is it for the other to wind up the SMSF. I thought there had to be two trustees. What problems are there?

A Veerdonk
October 19, 2022

Meg has previously written an article about creating a company to be the Trustee of the super fund with you and your spouse as Directors to simplify the transfer of trusteeship upon the death of a spouse/partner. Our accountant set this up for us.

Meg Heffron
October 19, 2022

There have to be two trustees if the trustee structure is individuals (rather than a company). If, however, the trustee is a company it can have just one person as a director. There are lots of reasons I think all SMSFs should have a company as the trustee but this is a good one - it means that this transition from 2 to 1 is far far easier.

To be honest, I don't think winding up a fund is particularly difficult - as I mention in the article, the process is similar to doing the usual annual return but there is an added process to move the cash / assets out of the fund (either into the person's own name or another fund). These days, moving to another fund can be a little trickier than it used to be because we have a system called "SuperStream" that imposes rules on how the cash and data is transferred between funds (gone are the days of just writing a cheque and sending it to the new fund). For this and many other reasons, it is something that is best done in a planful way and that might mean you choose to take it slowly.

David C
October 19, 2022

At 76 and in the vanguard of the Baby Boomers, that is a growing concern to me, that you have described well. If someone with your knowledge and expertise is uncertain, then we of the masses are even more so. As you say, closure of the fund before death is best, but timing unpredictable, especially when one sees acquaintances dying quite suddenly, leaving insufficient time for the closure process.
The current share market has prompted moving a considerable proportion into term deposits, more easily managed than share and managed fund portfolios, and offsetting capital gains from long-held shares against losses.
I would not give the management responsibility to my 2 daughters and suspect I shall roll over my single person SMSF into an industry fund when I no longer wish to manage it.


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