Death and taxes - understanding inheritance in Australia
Financial Planning | 8/05/2019 |
7 min read
They say nothing is certain but death and taxes. So let’s look at the actual rules around estates taxes, superannuation, and what happens to assets when they’re distributed to family and friends following a death.
Australia is an outlier, in that we don’t currently have any kind of estate tax. Whatever assets are passed down to family members, whether that’s property, cash, shares or otherwise, is exempt from any direct tax.
The caveat is that any change to a person’s financial position following on from an inheritance will be subject to the usual taxes, including interest earned, capital gains, etc. So if you inherit a share portfolio, or a sum of cash that generates interest, you’ll be obliged to pay the relevant taxes on any earnings it generates.
Things get more complicated when it comes to superannuation and death. There various rules around the distribution of assets - and just as many exemptions. But before we delve too deep, let’s look at the history of estate taxes, and why Australia has such a unique system.
A short history lesson
Australia had an estate tax until 1979. But when QLD premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen abolished all inheritance and gift taxes in the mid-70s to attract interstate migrants, the Federal Government responded by abolishing those same tax nationally.
Fast forward four decades, and the least popular tax policy in Australia is poking its head over the parapets again. The Henry tax review, in a proposal that was promptly rejected by both the ALP and the Coalition in 2010, said there were major reasons to consider what it termed a bequest tax.
It found "large asset accumulations" ended in the hands of a relatively small number of people, and that bequests were likely to rise from $22 billion in 2010 to $85 billion in 2030.
More recently, the Grattan Institute’s budget policy director, Danielle Wood, has said that, “A person earning $100,000 a year in wages or salary pays a little over $26,000 in income tax. A person who received a $100,000 inheritance from a deceased family member does not pay a cent of tax.”
She did add that any estate tax policy was "heinously unpopular" at the ballet box. Which means there’s very little political will to review the current arrangement.
Around the world
Other western nations have maintained estate taxes of varying amounts. The top five nations for estate tax are outlined below.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole story. In the US an estate tax only applies to sums over $11 million (USD), which means only about 2000 deceased estates are impacted per year. On the other end of the spectrum the UK applies an estate tax on any estates above £325,000 (GBP) and imposes a 40% tax on any sums above that threshold.
The OECD average is 15%, but again, that number becomes quite fuzzy when you take into account various thresholds.
Planning for the future
Australia may not have an estate tax, but the distribution of wealth after someone’s passing can still have significant impact on the beneficiaries. This includes tax implications from additional income as well as capital gains from the sale of assets.
In some instances superannuation inheritances may also be taxed. While there’s no tax when super is transferred from one deceased partner to another, the rules get murkier when it comes to non-dependents, e.g. children over 18. In these scenarios super may be taxed at either 15% or 17% based on the estate planning done beforehand.
Speaking to a qualified financial planner can help you better understand your options, and the most appropriate way to distribute your assets.
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