Released every month our debt collection blog contains news, stories and tips to keep you informed.
Following on from last month where we looked at the AFCA Approach to Mortgagee Sales this month we look at the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) approach to Financial Difficulty - Early Release of Superannuation.
The purpose of this article is to summarise the approach AFCA have regarding the early release of superannuation and what lenders obligations are when considering a request from a consumer to support the early release of superannuation.
Grounds for Release
There are 2 primary circumstances where a consumer may apply for the early release of superannuation. These are due to several financial hardship or compassionate grounds (mortgage arrears). A consumer that has been in receipt of a Government support payment, such as Newstart Allowance, continuously for 26 weeks may be entitled to the early release of superannuation on the grounds of financial hardship. A consumer may access between $1,000 to $10,000 once a year and the application must be made directly to their superannuation fund. The payment can be utilised for any purpose and does not require the support of the FSP.
Where the application is being made on compassionate grounds (mortgage arrears) the process is administered by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). A consumers application to the ATO for payment of mortgage arrears will need a letter from their FSP stating that the amount is overdue and if the overdue amount is not paid by the due date the mortgagee will foreclose or force the sale of the consumers principal place of residence. More information is available from Access on Compassionate Grounds on the ATO website.
There is an expectation from AFCA that FSPs will consider alternatives rather than simply supporting a request for the release of superannuation as the release of superannuation is a last resort. AFCA expects FSPs to take appropriate steps to understand the consumers financial position, decide what assistance it can provide the consumer and communicate its decision to the consumer.
Factors to Consider
When considering if support should be given for the early release of superannuation the FSP, , should explore all alternative options -
Where it is apparent that the consumer can afford to continue with the contractual repayments but unable to clear the arrears the FSP may consider it more appropriate to capitalise the arrears.
Where the FSP is unable to determine if the consumer can meet their ongoing contractual obligations it may be more appropriate for the FSP to provide a reasonable moratorium period to allow the consumer time for their situation to improve.
Where it is clear that the consumer will be unable to meet their ongoing contractual obligations supporting a release for superannuation may not be appropriate as any release will only delay the inevitable. In certain situations it may be beneficial for the FSP to allow the consumer time to sell the security property which will preserve their superannuation and may offer some financial relief.
Failing to Meet Obligations
Where AFCA believe that the FSP has failed to meet their obligations AFCA may rule that the FSP has failed to meet financial difficulty obligations under the AFCA Rules. Where the consumer has suffered a financial loss AFCA may award compensation.
Where the FSP has supported an early release for superannuation that AFCA believe inappropriate they will generally not require the FSP to refund the superannuation monies or reimburse any tax paid as a result of the withdrawal of the funds as in most cases the consumer will have obtained the benefit of the funds and will have potentially saved on interest, fees and charges.
To learn more or to read this article in its entirety visit AFCA Approaches - Early Release of Super.
Disclaimer: This article is general information only and does not constitute legal advice and is not intended to be relief on in any way.
Case Study - Unfair Financial Difficulty Policies
Issue: There were concerns that a bank's financial difficulty policies and procedures for its home loans were not compliant with section 72 of the National Credit Code (NCC), clause 28 of the Code of Banking Practice (CBP), and the AFCA Approach to Financial Difficulty.
The financial firm’s hardship policies prevented it from offering hardship solutions if a customer had been in long term financial difficulty and had previously failed to adhere to hardship agreements, or where the period of delinquency was significant. This means the financial firm refused to consider options such as a serviceability test followed by a capping arrangement, and instead focused on alternative repayment options which were unaffordable in light of the circumstances.
Outcome: Following our identification of the issue, the financial firm updated its hardship policy to offer more sustainable solutions. This included having practical discussions with customers experiencing financial difficulty to assist them to overcome their hardship.
The firm also offered capping arrangements for investment properties on a case by case basis. Training was provided to the firm’s hardship team to ensure that the updated policies were implemented correctly.
Application: Policies should not automatically exclude a customer from receiving hardship solutions due to long term hardship and issues such as high arrears or long periods of delinquency. Instead, financial firms should assess each request for assistance on an individual basis, and place an emphasis on the customer demonstrating their ability to service the loan.
If a customer has a positive change in circumstances that allows them to restart payments on a loan, they could be offered a repayment trial followed by capitalisation of arrears – the repayment trial could be the usual minimum monthly payment (MMP), interest only payments or loan term extension with reduced MMP.
Alternatively, if the customer has received hardship assistance over an extended period and they are still unable to meet the repayment schedule, then it may be appropriate to decline further hardship assistance, but instead consider other options such as a timeframe to permit the asset to be sold to repay the debt.
You may recall that in our June 2018 edition we published a blog ASIC Warns Consumers About Credit Repair Services. The article focused on a campaign being run by ASIC that was designed to inform consumers of the high level of fees charged by credit repair and debt relief firms. This month the Consumer Action Law Centre (CAL) has released an article, "Stop Debt Vultures", again highlighting the need for regulatory oversight of this industry.
As indicated in the article the credit repair and debt management firms operate outside of any regulatory licensing with no minimum requirements for competency, ethical standards or licensing. The reality of the situation is that anyone, regardless of their level of education, character or background, can start a credit repair business. In a statement to the media Gerard Brody, CEO of the CAL said, "The promise of fixing your debt worries and getting you back on track just doesn’t live up to reality in our experience. The fact is they can charge hidden and high fees, they can mislead about what it is they can do, and leave people in further debt."
With Australian household personal debt being one of the largest in the world, the CAL are asking that ASIC create a robust regulatory framework to ensure that credit repair and debt relief firms are held to a higher standard.
We will continue to monitor developments in this area.
With a disaster situation having been declared for Townsville, QLD and surrounding areas we are granting moratoriums for those in impacted areas effective immediately.
All of our staff have been notified of this significant event and the impact on surrounding regions and give an undertaking not to contact or take enforcement action. Where possible we will attempt to negotiate payment extensions or make alternate arrangements with those in affected areas.
If you are in immediate danger and are in need of assistance please contact 000 from a landline or 112 from a mobile and follow the directions of emergency personnel. You can find out more about the latest situation at the Queensland Government Fire & Emergency Services website or by following them on Twitter #QldFES.