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Seniors tax and moving money outside super

It’s not safe to assume any current tax regulation will stay the same forever. The Seniors and Pensioners Tax Offset (SAPTO) rules are suddenly in the news, after the Grattan Institute published a paper called ‘Age of entitlement: age-based tax breaks’. Grattan noted that seniors pay less tax due to the combination of SAPTO, a higher Medicare levy threshold and higher rebates on private health insurance. These age-based tax breaks mean that the proportion of people over 65 paying income tax has halved in the last 20 years, placing strains on the Commonwealth Budget.

No certainty about taxation rules

One of the difficulties in planning and saving for retirement is there is no certainty about the future rules. The superannuation regulations are notorious for constant tinkering, despite government assurances otherwise. While many despair at the recent superannuation changes which will increase taxes on large super balances from 1 July 2017, this new debate on SAPTO, levies and rebates shows far more budget outcomes are on the table for review.

The Australian Taxation Office issues a guidance on qualification for SAPTO. Eligibility for this seniors tax offset requires meeting conditions relating to income and age. A qualifying couple can earn up to $28,974 each (or a combined income of $57,948) without paying income tax, while the amount for a single person is $32,279. There are also energy supplements worth even more. Above these amounts, usual income tax rates apply.

The tax-free income potential is important when considering the merits of leaving money in superannuation. During the ‘accumulation stage’, super funds (including public and self-managed super funds) pay income tax at 15%. It is only when the money is in ‘pension stage’ that the income tax rate drops to zero. These relatively low rates make superannuation an efficient savings vehicle for anyone on higher marginal tax rates. For example, a person earning $100,000 will pay a tax rate of 39% (including Medicare Levy of 2%) on each extra dollar. If this person can salary sacrifice (up to defined limits) into super rather than the money going into personal income, the tax saving is significant at 24% (39% minus 15%). This is the best option for many people, insulating income from higher personal tax rates.

Choice whether to leave money in super

Retirees who satisfy the ‘condition of release’ rules and can access their super face a decision. They can leave their money in the pension phase of super and not be subject to tax, but the super system is subject to the vagaries of rule changes. More problematic, their estate may need to pay a 17% death tax on the taxable component of super paid to non-dependants (such as their adult children). This is a potentially large and avoidable tax.

Alternatively, they could take their money out of super, and invest in their own names and pay no income tax if they stay below the limits including the benefit of the SAPTO thresholds. At the moment, there are no death taxes outside super.

Every person’s circumstances are different, but there should not be an automatic assumption that money should be locked in superannuation when a retiree has a choice to access the money. It’s worth obtaining professional financial advice to check personal calculations.

As the latest debate on the SAPTO rules indicates, the only sacred cow remaining in the Australian taxation system is probably the exemption of the family home from various social security and capital gains tests. And it’s about time that was somewhere on the list.


Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Cuffelinks. This article is general information and does not consider the circumstances of any individual.


December 05, 2016

This article and the super system are premised on the basis that a couple will be of similar age and not have any dependents when they reach 60. Where one partner is caring for children and the other partner is over 60 it is necessary for both parents to continue working and access to super or SAPTO are not an option. In such cases individuals will have to give more attention to negative gearing to reduce their tax.

December 03, 2016

As per usual, the Grattan Institute has got it half right and mostly misunderstands how tax works for seniors. The Senior Australian and Pensioners Tax Offset (SAPTO) is only available to seniors of age pension age, but it works in conjunction with the Low Income Tax Offset (LITO) which is available to everyone. The complication is that the two tax offsets have different thresholds and different shadeout rates.
The LITO is a tax offset available to everyone with incomes up to $37,000. It is worth $445 and makes the effective tax free threshold, $20,550 rather than $18,200 because it offsets the tax on that income. For incomes above $37,000, LITO is reduced by 1.5%. For example, an income of $40,000, which is $3000 above the threshold, will reduce the LITO to $400. [445 – (3000*.015)]
SAPTO is a tax offset that operates in addition to LITO and is an aditional rebate of up to $1602 for members of a couple. Both offsets together total $2047 and together offset the tax on $28,974. If both members of the couple are eligible it means that together they can have an income of $57,948 and pay no tax. The shadeout rate is a punitive 12.5%. An income of $40,000 for such a member of a senior couple would have the same reduction in LITO as above and, in addition, the excess above the threshold of $28,974 will reduce the SAPTO down to $223.75 [1602 – (11,026 * .125)]. In fact SAPTO disappears at incomes above $41,790. That is something to consider if seniors arrange their affairs to take advantage of SAPTO and are then faced with a hefty capital gains bill.
In real terms SAPTO represents a tax saving of $1602 for eligible seniors (members of a couple) on incomes up to $28,974 compared to taxpayers who are not eligible for SAPTO. For eligible seniors on an income of $40,000 the tax saving from SAPTO is the princely sum of $223.75. This is the extent to which seniors are given an unfair tax advantage – simply scandalous.
The Grattan Institute apparently does not understand the tax system. If would indeed be unfortunate if they had the ear of government.

December 02, 2016

I agree with Alan, if you have $1.6m (or $3.2m for a couple) in super then I don't think you have anything at all to complain about!

December 01, 2016

Gee Carmen - the $1.6 M tax free from super and the ability to earn over $18K outside super and still NOT pay any tax - so able to earn over $100K (say 5% from nearly $2M) (Twice that if married). Yeah life is really tough for us self funded guys. Then if you have any extra just sticking it in the accumulation area only suffers tax at 15% so I dont know what my kids are complaining about trying to bring up kids and buy a house when they are picking on us so terribly.

December 01, 2016

Super for the self retiree is not what it is cracked up to be and why is the boot being kicked into the pension age 1.6m with the rate of current inflation will not be worth much in years to come heaven help those who do not own their homes.

The Govt should stop meddling in our Super Funds cut down in immigration and find work for our own kids STOP OFFSHORING cut wages instead along with wasteful spending big budget politician wages we do not need all these ministers and states and stop donating welfare to other countries if Australia cannot afford it.

December 01, 2016

I think the main problem is not that people assume that laws won’t change – that’s why the majority of Aussies don’t know or care about super (how much their expected retirement balance will be, how long it is likely to last, the impact of changing asset allocation, etc, etc.)

They rightly assume that most of the real wealth in life is held outside super, in the family house, business, investment properties, etc.

The reliance on taxpayers for pension age Australians is higher now than it was before compulsory super was introduced. And that’s just the age pension numbers – doesn’t include the other tax breaks, discounts, freebies and all the other middle-class welfare that burdens taxpayers.

And remember a couple can still have $3.2m tax free forever in super.


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