Attention to detail essential in BDBNs

Binding death benefit nominations are a powerful tool to ensure superannuation benefits are distributed to the proper parties when a member dies. However, Daniel Butler and William Fettes warn unless the direction is executed with precision, it may be completely useless.

There are numerous pitfalls that can upset a binding death benefit nomination (BDBN) and render it invalid. To help navigate this difficult terrain, we examine the major risks to be identified, managed or avoided.

Essentially, a BDBN is a direction made by a member to the superannuation fund trustee requiring the trustee to pay the member’s death benefit to the member’s dependant(s) or their legal personal representative (LPR), that is, the executor. BDBNs are a creature of the particular deed, and in large funds the mandated requirements of the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) (SIS) Act 1993 and SIS Regulations 1994, especially regulation 6.17A, must also be satisfied.

A BDBN should only be made where it is appropriate and should not be undertaken lightly. However, a BDBN based on a strong deed foundation, which is properly implemented with all due formalities, can play an important role in successful succession planning. To help illustrate the significance of BDBNs in this context, we briefly consider some relevant scenarios.

BDBNs – A useful tool for the right situation

You may wish to avoid your estate

A BDBN in favour of a member’s dependant(s) may be a sensible precaution to take where a member’s deceased estate could face legal challenges, such as testator’s family maintenance claims or similar challenges. In such cases, directing the trustee to pay the member’s death benefit directly to their dependant(s) avoids claims against the estate, as well as any legal costs borne by the estate.

Similarly, an insolvent member may wish to consider making a BDBN directly to their dependant(s) to protect their superannuation benefits from creditors against their deceased estate. Making a BDBN may be a prudent strategy to increase certainty their death benefit has been put beyond reach, notwithstanding the fact superannuation has certain bankruptcy protection under section 116(2)(d) of the Bankruptcy Act 1966.

You may wish to pay your benefit to your estate

Conversely, a member’s family situation may require a BDBN to pay their benefit to their estate via their LPR. For example, if a member has concerns about entrusting their children or surviving spouse with their superannuation benefit, leaving the decision to the trustee’s discretion will not prevent this outcome.

Enduring powers of attorney

Where a member wants to ensure effective nominations can be made in the future, even in the event of loss of mental capacity, BDBNs provide a potential solution in concert with an enduring power of attorney (EPOA). The law in each state and territory governs EPOAs, so care must be taken to ensure the specific power of dealing with superannuation is supported by the EPOA, and that the power falls within the general scope of powers (that is, financial or property) in the particular jurisdiction. However, broadly speaking, it is possible to confer power in respect of a BDBN through a properly drafted SMSF deed that expressly authorises an attorney under an EPOA to act. Of course, it should go without saying that having a trusted person is absolutely critical as the attorney will have considerable power.

Problems and pitfalls

For these reasons and others, BDBNs can be a powerful and important tool in a member’s succession planning toolkit. However, a word of caution is warranted here because BDBNs are a relatively new legal instrument. The law in respect of them continues to develop and evolve over time, and many pitfalls exist for the unwary. Keeping pace with these developments and seeking appropriate advice from expert advisers is critical. Indeed, recent cases such as Munro v Munro [2015] QSC 61 and Wooster v Morris [2013] VSC 594 show that effecting a valid BDBN is no simple task. More specifically, as BDBNs are a creature of the particular deed, the process of effecting a valid BDBN depends on a number of interrelated factors.

SMSF deeds that include SIS BDBN regulations

Many SMSF deeds include provisions from the SIS Act and SIS Regulations through wide deeming provisions of regulatory compliance, often inadvertently. A notable example of this occurred in the case of Donovan v Donovan [2009] QSC 26.

In Donovan v Donovan, Justice Fryberg found a letter given to the trustee asserting a ‘wish’ to pay the member’s death benefit to the LPR did not bind the trustee. However, the judge also made comments by way of non-binding obiter dicta about the effect of the deed’s reference to ‘statutory requirements’ on the formalities required and the duration of any valid direction binding the SMSF trustee. The judge remarked the language in clause 11.4 of the SMSF deed caused the BDBN requirements in SIS regulation 6.17A to apply to the SMSF.

Therefore, one important lesson to take away from Donovan v Donovan is that the presence of a broad deeming clause can have far-reaching consequences, such as including the three-year limitation. Accordingly, having a quality deed is of paramount importance. If there is any ambiguity, expensive and protracted legal action may determine the outcome. However, the case of Munro v Munro has since clarified the three-year rule in respect of SMSFs as discussed below.

Sloppy wording

Note that SMSF deeds are not a generic product and many SMSF deeds are unsatisfactory in this regard. SMSF deeds from many suppliers rely on a three-year BDBN, regardless of their clients’ needs, and many of these are easily challenged due to poor wording, such as “the BDBN is only binding if it’s to the trustee’s satisfaction”. This type of wording can easily give rise to argument if, say, the trustee is the second spouse who decides to reject the BDBN when their spouse dies.

The perils of using foundations made of straw

Despite the apparent emphasis in this article on the current deed, it must be said consideration of the most recent deed on file is not all that counts for a BDBN to be valid and effective. The most recent deed must have been varied in compliance with the prior variation power, the relevant consent of each party to effect a variation must be obtained, relevant notifications under the deed made and any other appropriate legal formalities complied with. Also, all or some deeds may have required stamping in accordance with the relevant state/territory stamp duty legislation. All these formalities must have been complied with in the document trail or the fund’s latest deed may not be valid and effective. This, in turn, results in BDBNs and other strategies undertaken on the basis of a ‘faulty’ deed being rendered shaky and possibly invalid.

Regrettably, and despite the critical importance of the deed foundation, most SMSF deeds these days are varied without proper checks on the prior document trail, including conditions and consents that must be satisfied.

If the SMSF has existed for some time and undergone variations from time to time, particularly without using experienced SMSF lawyers, a deed history review may be warranted. Such a review should encompass the original deed of establishment, any subsequent deed of variation, and any deeds of change of trustee, as well as any other document that may have varied the deed (for example, trustee resolutions). Moreover, the review should be conducted by an experienced adviser, preferably an SMSF lawyer, to see if remedial work is required to help ensure the SMSF’s ‘deed chain’ is as resilient to challenge as possible. Remedying any issues in a timely manner is generally far more cost-effective than being exposed to future legal challenge.

Drafting a BDBN notice – near enough is not good enough

The recent case of Munro v Munro provides Supreme Court authority for the proposition that an appropriately drafted SMSF deed allows an indefinite, non-lapsing BDBN for an SMSF. While the judgment is from the Queensland Supreme Court, it is likely to be persuasive and followed by Supreme Courts in other jurisdictions.

However, we turn now to another aspect of the case that provides a useful cautionary tale. In Munro v Munro, the nomination of the ‘trustee of his deceased estate’ gave rise to a number of legal hurdles. Broadly, these included:

  • SIS regulation 6.22 only allows a payment in favour of a dependant or LPR.
  • The definition of LPR in section 10 of the SIS Act means, relevantly here, the executor of the will.
  • The 2009 BDBN referred to the ‘trustee of deceased estate’. An executor only becomes a trustee after an estate has been administered and the applicants argued the BDBN did not need to comply with the criteria in regulation 6.17A as that did not apply to an SMSF. This was noted at [32].

Thus, the applicants had some hurdles to overcome for their arguments to succeed.

The respondents argued that regulation 6.17A was imported into the SMSF deed and argued other grounds in the alternative.

Note, the 2009 BDBN that had been made by Mr Munro on 22 September 2009 was still well within a three-year expiry period when he died in August 2011 (that is, the BDBN was around one month away from its two-year anniversary). The applicant’s argument the BDBN did not have to comply with regulation 6.17A was seeking to ensure the BDBN would be valid. This is an interesting point as for many disputes involving BDBNs it is only the three-year time period in regulation 6.17A that is in dispute.

The Munro decision again highlights the need for a BDBN to follow the strict requirements of the particular SMSF deed.

The court ordered the 2009 BDBN was not a binding nomination for the purpose of clause 31.2 of the SMSF deed. The interlocutory injunction was also discharged. Thus, the death benefit could be paid out by exercise of the trustee’s discretion.

It is interesting to also note that Mr Munro, who practised as a solicitor during his working life, did not pick up on the numerous legal issues in the documents provided by his accountant and financial planner. Advisers should ensure the documents they supply are reviewed and revised regularly by a qualified, registered and experienced legal practitioner to ensure they do not become liable. As noted above, there were numerous issues that upset the BDBN in this case and the BDBN in question was supplied by an accountant.

This judgment provides yet another reason why quality SMSF deeds and related documentation should be obtained, as poor-quality documents are likely to be ineffective. Ineffective documents can result in members having their super proceeds potentially paid to the wrong people; in many disputes, this is after expensive and lengthy legal battles.

Many think they have a valid BDBN when they don’t

As the above discussion has shown, getting a BDBN right is no easy task. Indeed, many who mistakenly believe their BDBN is secure will have that complacency exposed after their death when their BDBN is rendered invalid. To summarise, there are numerous risk areas, including:

  • Expiry of the nomination due to the three-year sunset rule under SIS regulation 6.17A.
  • Failure due to sloppy wording.
  • Problems with the prior deed history where one or more variations were not properly completed, rendering subsequent deeds, and any BDBNs purportedly made on the latest deed, invalid.
  • Failure due to poor wording such as in Munro v Munro where the wording of the BDBN, where close, was not good enough. The BDBN was only valid if the exact words under the deed were used.
  • Failure due to conflicting wording in the SMSF deed compared to what was in the reversionary nominations, wills and EPOAs.

The best philosophy to adopt in relation to BDBNs is doing it properly the first time. You only have a limited window of opportunity to get it right prior to the member’s death. So advisers need to give serious consideration to managing BDBNs as part of each client’s integrated estate and succession planning. Our recommendation is for advisers to institute a best practice approach to ensure they only use quality documents and procedures. Ideally this should be done with the engagement of experienced SMSF lawyers. Otherwise advisers may be open to significant legal liability when disputes arise.

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