Need to know
- The 2021 Budget includes a measure to make it easier for people in divorce proceedings to get their fair share of super
- A proposal to give victim-survivors of domestic or family violence early access to super has been scrapped. Domestic violence organisations say there are more effective ways to provide assistance
The 2021 Federal Budget included a range of measures to boost the economic security of women. These include a long-proposed idea to help people going through a divorce get their share of super, and initiatives to assist victim-survivors of domestic violence.
Domestic violence peak bodies welcomed the new measures but said much more needs to be done.
The largest investment was $261.4 million over two years under a new National Partnership Agreement to be negotiated with the states and territories. Other new initiatives include an additional $12.6 million over three years for a program that builds and maintains accommodation for women and children fleeing violence.
There was also a new investment in women's legal services across Australia.
Investment still fell substantially short of what domestic violence bodies were advocating
"If we are to truly address the catastrophic levels of domestic and family violence in our community, we need to see a $1 billion year on year investment," says Delia Donovan, CEO of Domestic Violence NSW.
"The federal government's investment into women's safety initiatives is positive – but we can't stop here."
Women's Safety NSW noted the budget represented record spending in women's safety measures but said this investment still fell substantially short of what domestic violence bodies were advocating.
Victim-survivors shouldn't have to fund their own escape
Earlier reports said the government was considering a change that would let people fleeing domestic violence withdraw up to $10,000. The government later scrapped this proposal after feedback from domestic violence organisations and legal groups.
But the abandoned idea raises questions about the best way to assist those fleeing domestic violence, and the limits of early super access in addressing societal problems.
Domestic violence peak bodies were concerned the proposal would mean victim-survivors were funding their escape from violence.
The abandoned idea raises questions about the limits of early super access in addressing societal problems
"The concern we have is that it shifts the responsibility onto the victim to fund the costs of escaping the violence and abuse being perpetrated against them," says Hayley Foster, CEO of Women's Safety NSW.
Donovan told Super Consumers Australia that she shared these concerns.
"It undermines and undervalues women who are fleeing crisis and need support," she says. "It places the onus on them to sort themselves out, which is wrong."
Perpetrators could abuse early access to super
The three domestic violence peak bodies Super Consumers Australia talked to were all concerned about perpetrators of domestic violence pressuring or forcing their partners to take out super.
"Allowing early access to superannuation opens victim-survivors up to risk of exploitation when they are already vulnerable, and gives perpetrators a new mechanism through which they can perpetrate abuse and affect their victims' financial security," says Louise Simms, executive director, policy, communications and engagement at Domestic Violence Victoria.
"I definitely think that would happen," says Donovan of the possibility of financial abuse. "We heard during COVID-19 that perpetrators of domestic and family violence were coercing their partners into taking out superannuation ... It's a significant risk."
These concerns are particularly relevant in the context of domestic violence, as it's extremely common for victim-survivors to experience financial abuse too.
Victim-survivors of domestic violence often also experience financial abuse.
Other ways victim-survivors in crisis can access funds
Domestic violence organisations have pointed to Victoria's Flexible Support Packages as a fairer and more effective way of helping those fleeing violence.
This scheme gives victim-survivors tailored support, including funding for housing, transport, financial and/or general counselling and material needs. It can also assist victim-survivors to install safety and security measures at their new property. A network of community organisations across the state provides these packages.
As for the big picture, Donovan says there's a need for more social housing to ensure women fleeing violence have a place to go if they're priced out of the rental market.
Super Consumers Australia contacted the relevant ministers in states and territories (except Victoria). We wanted to know if they planned to launch a scheme similar to the Flexible Support Packages and what measures they have in place to help victim-survivors escape violence.
Ministers in South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland failed to respond.
Other states and territories outlined a range of crisis measures they have in place, from emergency payments to financial counselling and short-term rental assistance.
Super not the answer
As well as accessing state-based services, victim-survivors may access a crisis payment from Centrelink.
"The proposal to allow victim-survivors may have been well-intentioned but there are better policy solutions that won't result in long-term financial losses for victim-survivors," says Super Consumers Australia director Xavier O'Halloran.
"The goal of helping victim-survivors flee domestic violence is extremely important.
"There's still an urgent need to assist those fleeing the scourge of domestic violence, but our discussions with domestic violence groups suggest the expansion and further funding of existing services would be much more effective and fair than using super."
Many women escaping family violence are living with limited assets and serious debt.
Super assets and divorce
The government also announced it would shortly introduce enabling legislation to improve the transparency of super assets for those going through a divorce. This change was first announced in 2018 and has been supported by women's advocacy groups.
The court system would need to implement electronic information sharing. The government has already allocated money to this project.
Stephen Bourke, a lawyer specialising in super splitting, says the project, when implemented, will make a real difference.
"It is clearly going to be a vast improvement on the current situation and secure a far better outcome for women," he says.
'Full and frank disclosure'
In divorce proceedings, the participants are legally obliged to make "full and frank disclosure" of relevant information to the court.
This requirement includes what super accounts they have. This information helps the court get a full picture of each party's finances and helps the court split the money fairly.
But any rule is only as good as its enforcement – and lawyers say the rule is often ignored.
Bourke says that one person not disclosing their super in divorce proceedings can have disastrous consequences for the other side.
"Any failure to disclose would be to the disadvantage of the other party, and the non-disclosed superannuation would simply not be part of the court's orders," he says.
"The person who had not disclosed all their superannuation holdings would then walk away with that super untouched by the Family Court."
Even with good will, people may accidentally fail to disclose all their super during divorce proceedings. One reason is that many Australians have duplicate accounts they don't know about.
Fairer access to super will help women fleeing violence
Tania Clarke, manager of policy and campaigns, Women's Legal Service Victoria, says the proposed change would particularly help women fleeing abusive relationships.
"Many women escaping family violence are living with limited assets and serious debt," Clarke says. "For them, superannuation is often the only part of the property pool.
"Making access to superannuation information easily available will mean a lesser burden on family violence survivors and less court time wasted trying to enforce disclosure requirements. It's a win for everyone in the family law system."
Three in four women experience economic abuse
Almost three in four women in the centre's small claims project experienced ongoing economic abuse. "Deliberate refusal to disclose superannuation assets was a large factor in this," says Clarke.
O'Halloran of Super Consumers Australia says the reform is much-needed: "We commend this reform, which will make the splitting of super assets a fairer, quicker process and reduce financial abuse."
Quicker and fairer divorce proceedings
For many Australians, super is the largest asset they own after their home. Dividing up these savings can be a costly and emotionally draining process.
"It is an issue fraught with complexity, particularly where one partner is experiencing domestic violence or financial abuse," said Sandra Buckley, CEO of Women in Super.
'Personal and mental trauma'
Buckley says the current situation means many women choose not to keep pursuing the super they're legally entitled to. This isn't just a matter of cost – it's also because they want to avoid the "personal and mental trauma" that people involved in a lengthy, contested divorce can face.
They want to avoid the 'personal and mental trauma' that people involved in a lengthy, contested divorce can faceSandra Buckley, Women in Super CEO
Clarke says Women's Legal Service Victoria has not encountered any opposition to these changes. But for those seeking their share of super after a relationship ends, the impact will be profound.
"These simple reforms are life-changing for women fighting for fair financial outcomes in our family law system," she says.
This content was produced by Super Consumers Australia which is an independent, nonprofit consumer organisation partnering with CHOICE to advance and protect the interests of people in the Australian superannuation system.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.