Superannuation is money regularly put into a fund that will be paid to the employee as a pension when they retire.


Paul Bingham


Superannuation benefit disputes

Last updated

1 July 2022

Death benefit disputes

Disputes about death benefits are common. In addition to the benefits which have accumulated in the fund at the date of death, many funds provide substantial life insurance benefits, which are added to the accumulated benefit.

However, the death benefit is usually not paid according to the will of the deceased but is paid according to the discretion of the trustee of the fund in accordance with the trust deed. The trust deed usually sets out a description of the class of people to whom the benefit can be paid; typically, the immediate family of the deceased or those wholly or partially dependent on the deceased.

A member can nominate the recipient of a death benefit in such a way as to make the nomination binding and avoid having the trustee make a decision and possibly begin a dispute. It must be renewed every three years to remain binding, unless the fund is self-managed.

Disputes can arise between possible beneficiaries about whether, for example, a particular person is wholly or partially dependent on the deceased; or, if more than one person satisfies the description of the class of beneficiaries, whether the trustee should exercise its discretion to determine how the benefit should be divided between the claimants. These problems become acute when the deceased was involved in more than one family during life.

Factors taken into account by trustees include:

  • whether the deceased nominated a preferred beneficiary and, if so, whether any event has occurred since the nomination which might have invalidated the nomination;
  • the comparative financial need of the claimants;
  • any amount to which a claimant is entitled from the estate of the deceased;
  • the extent of the financial dependency of the competing claimants on the deceased; and
  • the closeness of the relationship between the competing claimants and the deceased.

A potential beneficiary who is dissatisfied with a decision made by a trustee can complain to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (see ‘Review by the Australian Financial Complaints Authority’ in ‘Reviewing a trustee’s decision‘).

Superannuation and family law

A person’s superannuation entitlements can be divided between married and de facto couples. The division can be voluntary or ordered by the court.

Regulations set out the methods of valuing superannuation interests. Whether a benefit is a defined benefit or an accumulation benefit makes a difference to the valuation method. The regulations also set out the way in which the payment split is to be put into effect and also the information that the trustees have to provide to the parties.

The valuation and splitting of a benefit can be postponed. This can be useful if a defined benefit or a partially vested accumulation interest is involved. A superannuation benefit may be subject to a ‘caveat’ to prevent it being paid out until the non-entitled partner’s interest is determined and paid. The starting point for splitting superannuation is an equal division of benefits accumulated during the relationship, but certain factors (e.g. responsibilities for children under 18 and preserving farms) may be taken into account.

A new interest can be created for the non-member partner in funds regulated by Commonwealth superannuation laws, or the amount can be rolled over into a new fund. The amount will be preserved as if it had not been divided.

Couples can make binding superannuation agreements about how the superannuation will be divided if their relationship fails.

Further useful information about superannuation and family law is available on the website of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia.

Disability benefit disputes

Disputes about total and permanent disability benefits are also common, since a determination of whether the member is disabled as defined by the trust deed must be made. Such benefits are often provided by way of an insurance policy between the trustee and an insurance company. So, a dispute can also arise as to whether the person is disabled as defined in the insurance contract.

Other disputes can arise about whether a person is covered by insurance at a particular time, and by which insurance company. These disputes occur because the trustee has changed insurer. The questions of when incapacity occurs, and which insurer is liable at that time, can also arise.

Structure of disability benefits

The definition of ‘total and permanent disability’ varies. A common definition requires the person to have been absent from work due to sickness or injury for at least six months and is unlikely, in the opinion of the trustee or insurer, to ever work again in any profession, trade or occupation for which the person is reasonably suited by education, training or experience.

Work for which the person is ‘reasonably suited by education, training or experience’ is work for which the person is neither overqualified nor unqualified. For example, a carpenter who could work as a clerk might be regarded as totally and permanently disabled within this definition because such work is not suitable, given his carpentry experience.

Other common definitions require the person to have been absent from work due to sickness or injury for at least six months and to be unlikely, in the trustee’s opinion, to ever again work in their usual occupation (an easier test for the member to satisfy), or unlikely to engage in any gainful occupation for which they are qualified by education, training or experience or could be qualified by retraining (a more difficult test). While the ‘unlikely to’ test takes into account the question of whether the person could attract an employer, some insurance policies only insure against the person being ‘unable to engage’ in a gainful occupation for which they are qualified by education, training or experience. This is a more difficult definition to satisfy because it arguably does not take into account the question of whether the person could attract an employer.

Some insurers only provide an ‘Activities of daily living’ definition, which the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has called ‘essentially junk insurance’. It is worthwhile checking what form of definition the insurer applies to you.


Trustees often, but not always, finance the provision of death and total and permanent disability benefits through a group life insurance policy. Where the trustee is a commercial organisation, the insurer is usually a related company.

Where the benefit is insurance-funded, sometimes the member is only entitled to the benefit if the insurer pays the insured benefit to the trustee. But there are still two decisions to be made. The insurer must decide whether the member is entitled to the insured benefit, and the trustee must decide whether the member is entitled to a disability benefit.

The trustee must not allow the insurer to dictate their decision. If the trustee considers that the insurer should pay the benefit, the trustee may have a duty to press the insurer for payment.

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