Inheritance and estate tax in Australia

Deputy Editor · 20 April 2021

When a person passes away, there can potentially be a number of financial matters for their loved ones to take care of. Some of these – such as working out any possible tax implications – can be complex, and you may need advice from a qualified advisor based on the specifics of the situation and the people involved. But to help you understand how things work generally, here’s an overview of some of the tax-related matters you may encounter.

Is there an inheritance tax in Australia?

Australia hasn’t had an inheritance or estate tax (sometimes referred to as a ‘death tax’) for the last few decades. That being said, there may still be some tax considerations for the deceased person’s representatives (for example, the executor of the deceased estate) to tend to, such as potentially needing to complete a date of death tax return. In addition, there are a handful of taxes and levies which can potentially apply to sums of money and other assets passed from a deceased person to their dependants or other nominated beneficiaries.

Here’s an overview of how these taxes may work depending on your circumstances. Bear in mind that tax and super can be complex topics, so you may want to seek help from a taxation or financial adviser.

Taxation of superannuation death benefits

When someone dies, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) advises that who their super balance gets paid out to will determine how the benefit is treated for tax purposes. More specifically, factors such as whether the beneficiary is a dependant or not, along with their age and whether they receive the benefit as a lump sum or income stream can play a part in determining how the benefit is taxed.

In addition, the ATO explains that a super death benefit can be made up of tax-free and taxable parts. The ATO clarifies that the tax-free component can include after-tax contributions and government co-contributions, whereas the taxable component can consist of things like employer contributions and salary sacrifice contributions.

While several different factors can influence how a superannuation death benefit is taxed, there are a handful of general rules to keep in mind, according to info available from the ATO:

  • Payments to non-dependent beneficiaries of the deceased person can only be made in the form of a lump sum, whereas a dependant may receive either a lump-sum or income stream.
  • If the benefit is paid to a non-dependant, generally the taxable portion of it will be subject to tax, regardless of the recipient or deceased person’s age.
  • While a super death benefit paid to a dependant will generally be entirely tax-free if paid as a lump sum, it may be subject to tax if it’s paid as an income stream, although exceptions could apply in some situations.

It’s worth noting the ATO’s advice that super death benefits are typically paid based on the governing rules of the deceased’s super fund, not their will. However, it also states that an individual can potentially exert a higher level of control over who their super death benefit goes to once they die. Specifically, the ATO suggests you may be able to:

You can compare super funds with Canstar to see if you can find a product based on your situation.

If you’re comparing Superannuation funds, the comparison table below displays some of the products currently available on Canstar’s database for Australians aged 30-39 with a balance of up to $55,000, sorted by Star Rating (highest to lowest), followed by company name (alphabetical). Use Canstar’s superannuation comparison selector to view a wider range of super funds.

Fee, performance and asset allocation information shown in the table above have been determined according to the investment profile in the Canstar Superannuation Star Ratings methodology that matches the age group specified above.

Taxation on other types of inheritance

Unlike superannuation death benefits, other types of inheritance are normally distributed based on the deceased person’s will, according to Moneysmart. How any taxation may apply will generally depend on the type of inheritance in question. Here are a couple of examples of how it could work:

Taxation of inherited assets

The ATO advises that capital gains tax (CGT) is only paid in the event that an asset received from an estate is later sold. In this case, the ATO says you would potentially be required to pay CGT on the proceeds of the sale. However, if the estate’s executor sells an asset to someone else before distributing the proceeds to you, then this sale may attract CGT, unless an exemption applies.

Taxation of income derived from an estate

The ATO advises that any income you are entitled to and receive as a beneficiary of an estate is assessed as normal income, meaning that it could potentially increase the amount of income tax you have to pay. However, it is assessed in the year the entitlement arose, rather than the tax year in which you received the income.

Regardless of what stage of life you’re currently at, it may benefit you to seek expert advice and consider writing a will to specify how your estate and its proceeds are distributed.

Additionally, if you’re going to be a beneficiary of an estate, it may be worth seeking expert advice on how this could affect your tax affairs. And if you think you may soon become the executor of an estate, it may be prudent to seek legal advice on how to best distribute the assets.

Cover image source: eelnosiva/

This article was originally written by James Hurwood.

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This content was reviewed by Sub Editor Tom Letts and Sub Editor Jacqueline Belesky as part of our fact-checking process.

Sean has more than a decade of experience in journalism and communications roles in Australia, the UK and Ireland. His work covers a range of topics including finance, banking, property, investing, consumer and legal affairs, and more.

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