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Women’s super needs protection of reversionary benefits

International Women’s Day and the focus on equality in superannuation outcomes continues to gain momentum. Congratulations to all involved, notably Women in Super. The progress emphasises this is no time to take a step back on women’s rights to retirement savings.

According to the Women in Super website, women in Australia retire with 47% less superannuation than men. Reasons explaining such a large gap include:

  • A gender pay gap of about 19%.
  • Women’s fragmented patterns of paid work associated with having children.
  • Greater likelihood of women working in part-time and casual positions, and the associated lower level of pay.
  • Women undertake the majority of unpaid housework, caring and parenting.

To date, the focus has been on developing policies to reduce the large gender-based super gap. If successful in achieving policy change, it will then take decades for these changes to season and realise their full, intended impact.

In the meantime, it is important for the retirement outcome of women that any new regulatory rules are not further detrimental to the retirement outcomes of women. Unfortunately, we face such a situation right now.

Reversion of pension benefits might be lost

At present, Treasury’s first cut of the CIPR (Comprehensive Income Product for Retirement, read more here) guidelines details highly-prescriptive product rules which emphasise income and place zero value on retirement features such as bequests including reversionary benefits. A reversionary benefit is where a pension ‘reverts’ to an eligible spouse or de facto partner when a member dies after retirement. Products with reversionary benefits are not precluded from CIPR, but these features cost money and hence reduce incomes. Our analysis suggests it is nearly impossible to meet the CIPR minimum requirements with a product which provides a reversionary benefit.

Currently, most pension assets sit in account-based pensions. When most people switch out of super, they roll into an account-based pension. As long as a beneficiary is nominated, a reversionary benefit feature will exist.

We know that about 65% of Australians retire with a partner. Currently, whether we like it or not, the benefits of superannuation largely flow to women through their male partners. This is at risk through the current framing of CIPR if they do not relax the stance on reversionary benefits. This is a massive issue for future retirement savings of women.

Establishing retirement preferences

The industry may be heading down the path of addressing the post-retirement challenge via prescriptive solutions, such as new products. We believe the better approach is to first establish preferences for retirement, and then use these to assess the best of a range of possible solutions.

Treasury has ventured down the prescriptive route with the first cut of CIPR. We undertook a significant amount of reverse engineering to discover the preferences that are implied by the CIPR design rules. We feel many superannuation trustees will be uncomfortable assuming these implied preferences on behalf of their members (for instance, the zero-value placed on reversionary benefits). This clearly creates a difficult situation of conflict for trustees of super funds between acting on behalf of their members’ best interest while being required to follow law.

What can be done?

The Government has announced its desire for a covenant requiring superannuation fund trustees to design appropriate retirement income solutions to their members. Minister Kelly O’Dwyer has appointed an Advisory Group to assist with this and review the design characteristics of CIPR (read more here).

The potential loss of reversionary benefits in retirement and the impact on women in retirement is too important to dismiss. Treasury and the Advisory Group members must be made aware of this.


Estelle Liu is a Quantitative Analyst in the Retirement Outcome team at Mine Super. David Bell is Chief Investment Officer at Mine Super, and a PhD candidate at UNSW. The views expressed in this article are their own and may differ from those at Mine Super.


March 26, 2018

Could you provide an example or a link to your work to support this comment about costing more.
"Products with reversionary benefits are not precluded from CIPR, but these features cost money and hence reduce incomes. Our analysis suggests it is nearly impossible to meet the CIPR minimum requirements with a product which provides a reversionary benefit."

March 26, 2018

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for your question – it is a good one. Without going into actual quotes or formal modelling, consider the case of an annuity policy, and consider two forms of the policy:

(A) If the policy has a reversionary component (i.e. upon passing away a payment is made to a surviving partner (if alive)) then this probability of having to make an additional payment will be incorporated into the price of the policy, calculated by the insurance company.

(B) If the policy has no reversionary benefit then upon passing away the policy comes to an end.

There are more potential cash payments incorporated into Policy A and so, all else equal, Policy A will be more expensive (or offer a lower cash return per amount invested) than Policy B.

As a result, the same amount of retirement savings will buy you a lower lifetime income in Policy A than B. The initial version of the CIPR certification test has quite a high minimum income requirement to satisfy. If we want to allow for reversionary benefit and purchase Policy A, the level of income it provides is not likely to satisfy the minimum requirement under the initial version of the CIPR certification test.


March 23, 2018

As you have articles this week on both gender equity in super and the downsizing contribution - I wonder if anyone has looked at the downsizing contribution from a gender equity in super perspective? Given the high proportion of heterosexual couples comprising an older male and and younger female, to the extent that a home is sold prior to the wife reaching age 65 it seems to me that this may further tilt contributions towards male super balances - unless I'm missing something - which is always a distinct possibility!

Also want to say I loved your personal sporting commentary in this week's Cuffelinks. I started my day with a very good laugh and a smile on my face - so thank-you for that!

Rob Little
March 23, 2018

Another way by which retirement outcomes could be improved for women who are self funded retirees and who, together with their husbands/partners, were already in the pension phase before the 2016 Budget changes to super were introduced, would be to allow equalisation of Transfer Balance Caps between partners (thereby also overcoming the negative impacts of the Work Test and disallowed carry forward provisions on the ability of these women to make non concessional contributions).
Whilst most in this situation will by now have restructured their superannuation affairs to comply with the 2016 changes, perhaps equalisation of couples' TBCs could still proceed through a transfer of funds from one member's accumulation account to the other's pension account?

March 24, 2018

There is already a mechanism to equalise super balances between spouses, namely - Spousal Contribution Splitting - which allows annual super contributions to be transferred to a spouse (i.e. with a lower balance) which, overtime, can be used to equalise the super balances between spouses.

However, this requires a bit of planning, and needs to be done progressively during the income earning and super contribution years.

This policy has been in place for years.

Cate Wood
March 22, 2018

Thanks for acknowledging the work of Women in Super to improve women's retirement outcomes - a key plank of our Make Super Fair campaign is the demand that there be gender analysis of all policy proposals.

Women in Super
March 22, 2018

It is essential that we change the system to 'Make Super Fair' for women and low income earners! We need to end the 'Super Gap' that currently sees an estimated 40% of women retire in poverty.


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