Family lawyers have warned that thousands of people going through divorce could be missing out on assets worth thousands of dollars because they are unaware of superannuation splitting entitlements.
As the federal government faces calls to allow employers to make higher superannuation contributions for women workers, it has been revealed that there is widespread ignorance of laws allowing superannuation to be divided as part of divorce settlements.
A study commissioned by Industry Super Australia has found that less than half of 1082 people surveyed were aware that superannuation benefits could be split between separating couples.
The survey, conducted by research firm UMR in October last year, found that even among people who had used mediation, lawyers or a court following a relationship breakdown, ignorance was widespread, with only 65 per cent of men and 53 per cent of women aware of the superannuation splitting provisions.
Lawyer Tania Clarke, manager, policy and campaigns at the Women's Legal Service Victoria, said the findings were not surprising.
Ms Clarke said many of the women coming to her service for advice were unaware that they were entitled to a share of their former partner's superannuation.
"We support financially distressed women, many of whom have experienced family violence," she said.
"They are dealing with a myriad of issues and the last thing on their mind is that they can go for a property split."
Ms Clarke said that when asked if they have any property, they often don't even think of their former partner's superannuation, and are surprised when told that they have an entitlement.
The lawyer said the sums involved could be significant, particularly for women reliant on government welfare payments following a divorce.
"For many women superannuation is the only asset they can claim from their former partner," she said.
Courtney Mullen, a Canberra-based lawyer with Australian Family Lawyers, said laws allowing for superannuation to be recognised as an asset and split between a divorcing couple have been in place since 2002.
But Ms Mullen said it was very common for super to be overlooked when it came to dividing up assets.
"A very common misconception with people is that [superannuation] is not something to look at," she said.
She said this was particularly the case among younger people, who often overlooked super or did not realise they had a superannuation account.
Ms Mullen said another barrier was when a partner tried to avoid disclosing their superannuation accounts.
"Partners to a relationship have an obligation to provide information so you can make an informed decision, but that does not stop people from trying to hide it," she said.
Ms Mullen said the sums involved can be life changing, particularly in Canberra, where average superannuation balances per household are among the highest in the country.
"Without a doubt superannuation savings are a significant part of any property settlement when filing for divorce. But in Canberra this can be a very large nest egg when you consider the generous super arrangements for public servants," she said.
But she warned that valuing superannuation assets could be complex, particularly those involving defined benefit schemes such as the 'pension for life' arrangements common among government employees before 2005 and defence personnel before 2016.
"Pensions can be treated as a lump sum rather than income and can be included in a settlement. This is often the centre of many property settlement disputes in Canberra," Ms Mullen said.
Ms Clarke said the process of superannuation splitting has tended to be a complex and costly exercise, but reforms being undertaken by the industry would greatly simplify the process.
Industry fund HESTA is working with the Women's Legal Service Victoria on the reforms.
"Dividing superannuation assets through the family law system is unnecessarily complex and often requires costly legal advice," HESTA chief executive officer Debby Blakey said. "This results in many women, especially those from low-income households or who are most vulnerable, simply walking away from their rightful share of super assets."
HESTA hopes that the streamlined process it is developing will be adopted across the sector.
The UMR research found two-thirds of people surveyed thought it was important that women could easily apply for a share of their former partner's superannuation, a view backed by Super Australia chief executive Bernie Dean.
"The last thing anyone needs in a stressful time like divorce is to be confronted with a complex and costly process to get assets they may be legally entitled to," Mr Dean said.
"Women sacrifice their super by taking time out of the workforce to raise a family. When that family breaks down it's only right they're able to access their fair share of their partner's super."