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Taxable vs. Nontaxable Income: Members of the Armed Forces

If you’re a member of the U.S. Armed Forces on active duty, you’re generally not required to pay federal income tax on all the income you receive. What’s taxed and what’s not taxed depends on what form the income takes and, in some cases, where the income is earned. Generally, basic pay, special pay, and bonuses are taxable (unless they’ve been earned for service in a combat zone), while in-kind benefits, reimbursements, and allowances are not taxable.

A member of the Armed Forces is defined as a commissioned officer or an enlisted person in any regular or reserve unit under control of the Secretary of Defense, Army, Navy, or Air Force, or in the Coast Guard. Members of the U.S. Merchant Marine and the American Red Cross are not considered members of the Armed Forces for federal income tax purposes.

What is taxable?

Basic Pay

Basic pay must be included in gross income for federal income tax purposes, unless it’s for service performed in a combat zone (explained below). Basic pay includes amounts received for:

  • Active duty
  • Attendance at a designated service school (e.g., the Air Force Academy)
  • Drills
  • Reserve training

Special Pay

Like basic pay, special pay is taxable unless it’s earned in a combat zone. Special pay may include compensation for:

  • Foreign duty (outside the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia)
  • Hardship duty
  • Hostile fire or imminent danger

Bonuses and other payments

Unless you’ve earned them in a combat zone, you must include in gross income on your federal income tax return any bonuses or other payments received for:

  • Enlistment or re-enlistment
  • Accrued leave
  • Student loan repayments from certain military educational loan repayment programs

What isn’t taxable?

You may exclude from gross income certain items whether they are furnished in kind, as a reimbursement, or as an allowance. Among other items, you may exclude:

  • Living allowances, such as the BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing), BAS (Basic Allowance for Subsistence), and OHA (Overseas Housing Allowance)
  • Allowances for moving your household, personal items, trailer or mobile home, for placing your belongings in storage, and for temporary lodging
  • Certain travel allowances for dependent students, for leave between consecutive overseas tours, and for per diem expenses
  • Payments for group term life insurance, professional education, or uniform allowances
  • The value of in-kind benefits, such as legal assistance, medical/dental care, uniforms furnished to enlisted personnel, and commissary/exchange discounts
  • Benefits received under a dependent-care assistance program

Military base realignment and closure benefits–qualified payments made under the Homeowners Assistance Program (HAP) are generally excluded from income. However, certain limits apply.

Generally speaking, as a member of the Armed Forces you are considered an employee of the United States, and any amounts paid to you by the U.S. government or its agencies, even if you are stationed outside the United States, are not considered foreign income. However, if you (or your spouse) earn income from a foreign company, and you meet the other requirements, you may be able to exclude that income from your gross taxable income.

Combat zone exclusion

Who is eligible

A combat zone is any area the President of the United States designates by Executive Order as an area in which the U.S. Armed Forces are engaging or have engaged in combat. As an active member of the U.S. Armed Forces, you may exclude from gross income some or all of your otherwise taxable military compensation if it is earned during a month (or part of a month):

  • While you’re serving in a combat zone
  • While you’re hospitalized (inside or outside a combat zone) as a result of a wound, disease, or injury you incurred during your service in a combat zone

This exclusion doesn’t apply to pay you receive for any month of hospitalization that begins more than 2 years after the end of combat activities in the combat zone.

This exclusion will apply when you’re serving outside a combat zone if that service directly supports military operations in a combat zone and qualifies you for hostile fire or imminent danger pay

You’re considered as serving in a combat zone if you’re assigned to it on official temporary duty or you qualify for hostile fire/imminent danger pay while you’re there. Service in a combat zone includes any periods you are absent from duty because you’re sick, wounded, or on leave. If, while serving in a combat zone, you become a prisoner of war or are considered missing in action, you’re still considered to be serving in that combat zone as long as you keep that status for military pay purposes.

You’re not considered to be serving in a combat zone if you’re:

  • In the combat zone while you’re on leave from a duty station located outside the combat zone
  • Passing over or through the combat zone during a trip between two points that are outside the combat zone
  • In the combat zone solely for your personal convenience

Excludable income

If you are an enlisted member, warrant officer, or commissioned warrant officer and you meet the combat zone exclusion eligibility requirements outlined above, all your military pay can be excluded from gross income. If you are a commissioned officer (other than a commissioned warrant officer), the amount of pay you can exclude from gross income is limited to the highest rate of pay for an enlisted person, plus any imminent danger/hostile fire pay you receive.

If you meet the combat zone exclusion eligibility requirements for one or more days during a particular month, you’re entitled to exclude from taxation your eligible pay for the entire month.

Certifying the exclusion

The wages shown in box 1 of Form W-2, issued by your service branch, should not include any military pay that is excludable from gross income under the combat zone exclusion provisions. If you believe you’re entitled to the exclusion, but it’s not reflected on your Form W-2, you’ll need to get a corrected Form W-2 from the appropriate finance office. You cannot exclude as combat pay any wages shown in box 1 of Form W-2.

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