Australia: SMSF trustee death benefit payment decisions – have you done enough to protect your position?

Last Updated: 18 March 2019
Article by Scott Bartlem, Clinton Jackson, Hayley Mitchell and Steven RA Jell

Most Popular Article in Australia, March 2019

The recent Victorian decision of Re Marsella; Marsella v Wareham (No 2) [2019] VSC 65, demonstrates what not to do as a trustee when paying a death benefit from a self-managed superannuation fund, and, very importantly, what not to do as a trustee's adviser. The case is a perfect example of where specialist advice could have completely changed the outcome.

In Re Marsella, Mrs Marsella had died, with her daughter as the remaining trustee of her self managed superannuation fund. Her daughter decided to pay the death benefit to herself and this decision was challenged by Mrs Marsella's second husband.

The issues in dispute were whether:

  • the daughter had correctly exercised the trustee's discretion in paying the death benefit to herself
  • the decision to pay the death benefit to the daughter was a conflict of interest.

Ultimately, the daughter was removed as the trustee of the SMSF, as the court decided she exercised her discretion in bad faith and without proper consideration of the relevant issues. She must repay the death benefit and the new trustee (likely to be an independent person) will remake the death benefit payment.

What went wrong

In considering the trustee's decision to pay the death benefit to herself, the Court considered the following evidence:

  • correspondence between the daughter's solicitor and the solicitor for the husband
  • advice provided by the fund's accountant
  • the resolutions recording the trustee's decision to pay the death benefit
  • the surrounding circumstances of the disputes arising in the deceased estate

Based on the evidence, the Court found the daughter, as trustee:

  • did not understand her duties to consider the other eligible beneficiaries of the death benefit (including the husband and the executor of the estate)
  • was either ignorant of or had deliberately mischaracterised the true circumstances
  • had denied her conflict of interest in being a trustee and eligible beneficiary (despite the conflict being clear)
  • wrongly concluded the discretionary decision allowed the trustees to pay the death benefit without a genuine consideration of the trustee's duty to exercise the power in good faith
  • had not tried to resolve these issues by seeking proper advice

The daughter's correspondence went so far as to claim that the husband had no interest in the superannuation fund, and the trustee had no duty toward the other potential beneficiaries. This was clearly wrong.

How to correctly exercise discretion to pay a death benefit

When exercising the discretion to pay a death benefit, the trustee must consider the:

  • intention of the deceased (looking at any previous binding and non-binding death benefit nominations, or other documentation or circumstances)
  • relationship between the deceased and each of the eligible beneficiaries
  • financial circumstances and needs of each of the eligible beneficiaries.

If a trustee's decision is disputed, the trustee must be able to provide evidence that this took place. However, it was not clear from the judgement whether, in doing these things, a trustee would absolve themselves of their conflict of interest where they were also an eligible beneficiary.

When a dispute arises about the payment of a death benefit, the court's role is to look at the:

  • inquiries made by the trustee
  • information the trustee had available
  • trustee's reasons for exercising discretion
  • manner in which the discretion was exercised.

It is not the court's role to assess the fairness or reasonableness of the trustee's decision. However, the trustee's decision itself may form part of the evidence to prove the discretion was not properly exercised. The decision to pay a death benefit is not as simple as preparing a resolution of trustee.

Conclusion

In Re Marsella the Court concluded that the daughter's actions amounted to an exercise of discretion in bad faith. The Court ordered the trustee be removed, and the death benefit decision be set aside. With the proper specialist advice and consideration of her duties, the trustee's decision could have survived. In a similar case, Ioppolo v Conti [2015] WASCA 45, the husband's decision to pay the death benefit to himself was upheld when challenged by the deceased member's daughters as he took appropriate advice and considered the interests of the daughters.

These cases demonstrate how important it is for a trustee to seek informed specialist advice (particularly where there is a risk of dispute) when exercising their discretion to pay a death benefit, and ensure they carry out their duties in good faith. Failure to do so will likely result in the trustee's decision being reversed, and the trustee being removed from office.

© Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers

Cooper Grace Ward is a leading Australian law firm based in Brisbane.

This publication is for information only and is not legal advice. You should obtain advice that is specific to your circumstances and not rely on this publication as legal advice. If there are any issues you would like us to advise you on arising from this publication, please contact Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
 
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
 
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
 
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions