Australian Superannuation: Private Social Security or Pension?

When it comes to Australian Superannuations and U.S. tax, there is no concrete answer as to how the IRS will address the issue (as of the writing of this article).

The most important issues involving a Superannuation and U.S. Tax are:

  1. What is an Australian Superannuation Fund? 
  2. How is a Superannuation Taxed in the U.S.?
  3. What Does the U.S. – Australian Treaty Say about Supers?
  4. Is Australia Superannuation Social Security or Pension for U.S. Tax?
  5. Isn’t a Superannuation just like U.S. Social Security?
  6. SSA Says Superannuation is Privatized Social Security?
  7. Is a Super considered a Private Social Security under U.S. Tax Laws?
  8. Let’s Compare a Super to Foreign Retirement which the IRS has Issued Memoranda
  9. Superannuation vs. CPF 

1. What is an Australian Superannuation Fund? 

A Superannuation is a retirement fund. As provided by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission:

It’s similar to a managed fund where your money is pooled with other members’ money and invested on your behalf by professional investment managers.


Generally you will not be able to access this money until you retire. Your employer will make contributions to your super fund and you can top it up with your own money.


The government may also make contributions if you are a low income earner. Most people can choose which super fund they’d like their super contributions paid into. For most people, your employer must pay an amount equal to 9.5% of your salary into your super fund account.


This is on top of your salary or wages. Over the course of your working life, these contributions from your employer add up, or ‘accumulate’, which is why they are known as accumulation funds. Your super money is invested by your super fund so you will earn investment returns on the money. There are several different types of superannuation funds.


The mains ones are; Employer/corporate/staff funds – these are funds established by an employer for the benefit of their staff. Personal funds – as the name implies, you personally join as an individual through a super provider. There are many available and most will offer a wide range of investment choices and other features. Industry funds – these were originally set up for people working in a particular industry, e.g. builders or health care workers.


Many are now available to the public. Self-managed super funds (SMSF’s) – these can have up to five members and are generally used by people with larger amounts in super who want more control and flexibility. If you would like more information about the different types of super funds, speak to your financial adviser.


2. How is a Superannuation Taxed in the U.S.?

Even though the IRS has not ruled specifically as to the tax treatment of Superannuations and the U.S and Australia Income Tax Treaty is silent as to the specific issue of Superannuations — there are signs that the Superannuation contributions/deferrals may be taxable by the U.S., even if it the growth may not be taxable (except under certain situations).

3. What Does the U.S. – Australian Treaty Say about Supers?

The U.S. and Australia Treaty is silent on Superannuation Funds. In other words, the tax treaty does not provide any specific guidance on superannuation funds.

4. Is Australia Superannuation Social Security or Pension for U.S. Tax?

Until the IRS rules on this issue, there are two main comparisons:

  • Is a Superannuation similar to U.S. Social Security; or
  • Is a Superannuation similar to a Foreign Retirement Pension?

U.S. Social Security

U.S. social security contribution is relatively simple. We all pay (subject to a totalization agreement) 6.2 percent and your employer pays 6.2 percent. If you’re self-employed, you pay 12.4 percent. You don’t pay Social Security taxes on earnings greater than the annual cap. You and your employer each pay 1.45 percent.

When a person reaches a certain age, they begin receiving social security payments. A person can typically elect to begin receiving U.S. Social Security at different ages, and then based on the total income received by the person, that will determine whether a portion or all of their social security is taxed (when a person earns less additional income, then less of the social security is taxed, and vice versa).

Foreign Retirement Pension

See below under Article 8 for discussion regarding CPFs (a foreign retirement pension).

5. Isn’t a Superannuation just like U.S. Social Security?

No, and here’s why:

– Australia already has its own form of Social Assistance (aka Social Security)

– Social Security is a defined benefit, a Superannuation ROI (Distributions) will vary

– You can withdraw the entire Superannuation balance in one withdrawal.

– A Superannuation is only mandatory to the EMPLOYER. Meanwhile U.S. Social Security is mandatory to the Employer and Employee.

– A Superannuation has a set amount of money per person that can be withdrawn in full, U.S. Social Security does not.

– A superannuation has an account number, specific to the individual, social security does not.

– You cannot choose the fund for investments or investment strategy for Social Security, but you can for social security.

Australian Has Separate Social Assistance (aka Social Security)

Social Security is called social assistance and is provided by the government in Australia. 

Social Assistance in Australia is different than a superannuation. In other words, Australia has public social assistance distinct from Superannuations.

6. SSA Says Superannuation is Privatized Social Security?

Yes, that is true, BUT, the SSA (Social Security Administration) also treats a CPF as “Privatized Social Security,” and the IRS has ruled that both the deferrals and the CPF growth within the fund is taxable (even if it is not distributed).

Result: The mere fact that the SSA designates something for Social Security and Totalization Agreement purposes is not binding on the IRS.

7. Is a Super considered a Private Social Security under U.S. Tax Laws?

While the IRS has not issued any rulings, it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty that the Superannuation is a Private Social Security and therefore will receive tax treatment under Article 18 instead of Article 22.

And, it is a pretty bold statement to presume it will be accepted by the IRS as privatized social security by referring on the SSA instead of an IRS ruling…especially when the IRS has ruled against deferred tax for contributions and growth of similar types of foreign retirement funds. Even though there is no tax treaty with Singapore, that is not the sole reason why the deferred contributions are taxable at the time of deferral/contribution.

Since there is a treaty with Australia, that may presume that the growth within the fund should not be taxed prior to distributions, but each specific case should be analyzed by its own set of facts and circumstance…it is not one size fits all.

8. Let’s Compare a Super to Foreign Retirement which the IRS has Issued Memoranda

At Golding & Golding, we handle many cases involving CPF and Australian Superannuation Funds. Therefore, we thought it be a good idea to try to compare the two and developed our following analysis.

This comparison analysis was prepared exclusively by Golding & Golding:

What is a Singapore CPF?

A CPF is a mandated retirement scheme in Singapore. Both the employer deferrals and employee contributions are required. A CPF has multiple components to it, and the funds are broken down into different categories.

While the rules will vary depending on whether the portion of the contribution is mandatory or not, and whether it exceeds certain thresholds or not, typically the portion of the Employers Contribution that is compulsory or “mandatory” is not taxable, while the portion that is voluntary is taxable.

The employer contributes to the CPF, and then the employer can seek to recoup the money contributed for the employee’s share of the contribution.

Why is U.S. Tax of a CPF Important?

Because unlike a Superannuation, the IRS has issued memorandum regarding the taxation of CPFs…and it is not good.

If you are a U.S. Person, the CPF is taxed twofold by the IRS:

First, the amount of income that is deferred from your salary and deposited directly into the CPF is taxed by the IRS (even if tax deferred in Singapore).

Second, the growth within the fund is also taxed. The IRS has issued memoranda on each of these issues.

9. Superannuation vs. CPF 

While a Superannuation and CPF are not identical, they are very similar. Both are mandated retirement funds by their respective governments, and both are classified as privatized social security by the SSA (Social Security Administration).

But, while the IRS has ruled on taxation of a CPF, the IRS has not ruled on Superannuations.

Therefore, the CPF will serve as good comparison. And, for all you tax geeks (like us) out there, we know they are not identical, but the CPF serves as a solid base for comparison purposes.

A Superannuation is very similar to a CPF

  • Both are deferred from salary
  • Both have their own identifier number (aka “assigned account number”)
  • Neither is required if it is not a local employer
  • Both can be depleted in full by the employee/owner 
  • Both offer periodic distributions but they are not mandatory (a person can take the full deduction)

Conclusion 

As to the Superannuation, it is probably safe to:

  • Pay U.S. Tax on any income you earned from an employer that was diverted to a Superannuation – while you were a U.S. Person
  • Pay U.S. Tax on Distributions, if you are a U.S. Resident
  • Report the Super (see below)
  • Consider the pros and cons of paying tax on the growth (especially HCE, Highly Compensated Employee)

Superannuation Reporting

Putting income tax issues aside for a moment, the Superannuation must be reported on various IRS international tax forms and the failure to report may lead to extensive fines and penalties (although there are IRS approved programs designed to reduce, minimize, and/or eliminate penalties).

*The goal of this article is just to keep you informed of how the IRS may rule and provide an alternative opinion to some other information presented online. We are not making any concrete statement that you should pay tax on any accrued but non-distributed income growth.

What if You Never Paid Tax or Reported the Superannuation

IRS Offshore Penalties

Depending on facts facts and circumstances of the noncompliance the IRS has the right to issue extremely lopsided penalties against any individual who is out of IRS compliance.

Even a cursory review of the IRS penalties and the Standard of Proof required by the IRS to prove the penalties reflects that even minor infractions can result in significant penalties.

Not Everyone Gets Penalized

We understand that as you research issues online, many attorneys and CPAs seem to enjoy the fear mongering aspect of being tax professionals – we do not.

They toss around terms like “five years in prison,” “$500,000 Fine”, or “Tax Fraud” to scare you. They do this, without providing examples of the penalties and without placing these penalties into context.

For example, if an individual was clearly non-willful, they are not going to jail for five years or being penalized millions of dollars for tax evasion. 

Still, some attorneys go out of their way to unnecessarily scare individuals with relatively benign facts with jail or prison, but of course neglect the fact that the U.S. Government still must prove a person acted beyond a reasonable doubt to pursue criminal charges.

You Have Methods for Getting IRS Compliant

In reality, the IRS doesn’t issue penalties against every individual with undisclosed or unreported foreign money. In addition, the IRS offers various amnesty program to facilitate compliance.

In addition, depending on your facts and circumstances you may qualify for various alternatives to amnesty, which may result in a complete penalty waiver.

IRS Offshore Penalty List

The following is a list of potential IRS penalties for unreported and undisclosed foreign accounts and assets:

A Penalty for failing to file FBARs

United States citizens, residents and certain other persons must annually report their direct or indirect financial interest in, or signature authority (or other authority that is comparable to signature authority) over, a financial account that is maintained with a financial institution located in a foreign country if, for any calendar year, the aggregate value of all foreign financial accounts exceeded $10,000 at any time during the year. The civil penalty for willfully failing to file an FBAR can be as high as the greater of $100,000 or 50 percent of the total balance of the foreign financial account per violation. See 31 U.S.C. § 5321(a)(5). Non-willful violations that the IRS determines were not due to reasonable cause are subject to a $10,000 penalty per violation.

FATCA Form 8938

Beginning with the 2011 tax year, a penalty for failing to file Form 8938 reporting the taxpayer’s interest in certain foreign financial assets, including financial accounts, certain foreign securities, and interests in foreign entities, as required by IRC § 6038D. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns is $10,000, with an additional $10,000 added for each month the failure continues beginning 90 days after the taxpayer is notified of the delinquency, up to a maximum of $50,000 per return.

A Penalty for failing to file Form 3520

Annual Return to Report Transactions With Foreign Trusts and Receipt of Certain Foreign Gifts. Taxpayers must also report various transactions involving foreign trusts, including creation of a foreign trust by a United States person, transfers of property from a United States person to a foreign trust and receipt of distributions from foreign trusts under IRC § 6048. This return also reports the receipt of gifts from foreign entities under IRC § 6039F. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns, or for filing an incomplete return, is the greater of $10,000 or 35 percent of the gross reportable amount, except for returns reporting gifts, where the penalty is five percent of the gift per month, up to a maximum penalty of 25 percent of the gift.

A Penalty for failing to file Form 3520-A

Information Return of Foreign Trust With a U.S. Owner. Taxpayers must also report ownership interests in foreign trusts, by United States persons with various interests in and powers over those trusts under IRC § 6048(b). The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns or for filing an incomplete return, is the greater of $10,000 or 5 percent of the gross value of trust assets determined to be owned by the United States person.

A Penalty for failing to file Form 5471

Information Return of U.S. Persons with Respect to Certain Foreign Corporations. Certain United States persons who are officers, directors or shareholders in certain foreign corporations (including International Business Corporations) are required to report information under IRC §§ 6035, 6038 and 6046. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns is $10,000, with an additional $10,000 added for each month the failure continues beginning 90 days after the taxpayer is notified of the delinquency, up to a maximum of $50,000 per return.

A Penalty for failing to file Form 5472

Information Return of a 25% Foreign-Owned U.S. Corporation or a Foreign Corporation Engaged in a U.S. Trade or Business. Taxpayers may be required to report transactions between a 25 percent foreign-owned domestic corporation or a foreign corporation engaged in a trade or business in the United States and a related party as required by IRC §§ 6038A and 6038C. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns, or to keep certain records regarding reportable transactions, is $10,000, with an additional $10,000 added for each month the failure continues beginning 90 days after the taxpayer is notified of the delinquency.

A Penalty for failing to file Form 926

Return by a U.S. Transferor of Property to a Foreign Corporation. Taxpayers are required to report transfers of property to foreign corporations and other information under IRC § 6038B. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns is ten percent of the value of the property transferred, up to a maximum of $100,000 per return, with no limit if the failure to report the transfer was intentional.

A Penalty for failing to file Form 8865

Return of U.S. Persons With Respect to Certain Foreign Partnerships. United States persons with certain interests in foreign partnerships use this form to report interests in and transactions of the foreign partnerships, transfers of property to the foreign partnerships, and acquisitions, dispositions and changes in foreign partnership interests under IRC §§ 6038, 6038B, and 6046A. Penalties include $10,000 for failure to file each return, with an additional $10,000 added for each month the failure continues beginning 90 days after the taxpayer is notified of the delinquency, up to a maximum of $50,000 per return, and ten percent of the value of any transferred property that is not reported, subject to a $100,000 limit.

Fraud penalties imposed under IRC §§ 6651(f) or 6663

Where an underpayment of tax, or a failure to file a tax return, is due to fraud, the taxpayer is liable for penalties that, although calculated differently, essentially amount to 75 percent of the unpaid tax.

A Penalty for failing to file a tax return imposed under IRC § 6651(a)(1)

Generally, taxpayers are required to file income tax returns. If a taxpayer fails to do so, a penalty of 5 percent of the balance due, plus an additional 5 percent for each month or fraction thereof during which the failure continues may be imposed. The penalty shall not exceed 25 percent.

A Penalty for failing to pay the amount of tax shown on the return under IRC § 6651(a)(2)

If a taxpayer fails to pay the amount of tax shown on the return, he or she may be liable for a penalty of .5 percent of the amount of tax shown on the return, plus an additional .5 percent for each additional month or fraction thereof that the amount remains unpaid, not exceeding 25 percent.

An Accuracy-Related Penalty on underpayments imposed under IRC § 6662

Depending upon which component of the accuracy-related penalty is applicable, a taxpayer may be liable for a 20 percent or 40 percent penalty

Possible Criminal Charges related to tax matters include tax evasion (IRC § 7201)

Filing a false return (IRC § 7206(1)) and failure to file an income tax return (IRC § 7203). Willfully failing to file an FBAR and willfully filing a false FBAR are both violations that are subject to criminal penalties under 31 U.S.C. § 5322.  Additional possible criminal charges include conspiracy to defraud the government with respect to claims (18 U.S.C. § 286) and conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States (18 U.S.C. § 371).

A person convicted of tax evasion 

Filing a false return subjects a person to a prison term of up to three years and a fine of up to $250,000. A person who fails to file a tax return is subject to a prison term of up to one year and a fine of up to $100,000. Failing to file an FBAR subjects a person to a prison term of up to ten years and criminal penalties of up to $500,000.  A person convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government with respect to claims is subject to a prison term of up to not more than 10 years or a fine of up to $250,000.  A person convicted of conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States is subject to a prison term of not more than five years and a fine of up to $250,000.

What Should You Do?

Everyone makes mistakes. If at some point you discover that you should have been reporting your foreign income, accounts, assets or investments, the prudent and least costly (but most effective) method for getting compliance is through one of the approved IRS offshore voluntary disclosure programs.

Golding & Golding, A PLC

We have successfully represented clients in more than 1,000 streamlined and voluntary disclosure submissions nationwide and in over 70-different countries.

We are the “go-to” firm for other Attorneys, CPAs, Enrolled Agents, Accountants, and Financial Professionals across the globe.

IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Specialist

IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Specialist

Golding & Golding: Our international tax lawyers practice exclusively in the area of IRS Offshore & Voluntary Disclosure. We represent clients in 70+ different countries. Managing Partner Sean M. Golding is a Board-Certified Tax Law Specialist Attorney (a designation earned by < 1% of attorneys nationwide.). He leads a full-service offshore disclosure & tax law firm. Sean and his team have represented thousands of clients nationwide & worldwide in all aspects of IRS offshore & voluntary disclosure and compliance during his 20-year career as an Attorney.

Sean holds a Master's in Tax Law from one of the top Tax LL.M. programs in the country at the University of Denver. He has also earned the prestigious IRS Enrolled Agent credential. Mr. Golding's articles have been referenced in such publications as the Washington Post, Forbes, Nolo, and various Law Journals nationwide.
IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Specialist