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Top 10 Tax Breaks for Military Service Members

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Active duty service members, veterans and their families deserve our gratitude for their sacrifices for our country. One small "thank you" from the government comes in the form of tax breaks to service members serving here and abroad. Here are 10 breaks for military families to consider.

  1. Combat Zone Exclusion

Generally, income earned from employment is taxable, but certain exceptions may apply. For instance, if you're a member of the Armed Forces serving in a designated combat zone, or you were hospitalized from wounds, disease or injury obtained while serving in a combat zone, you can exclude from tax the pay you receive in the following situations:

  • Active duty pay earned in any month served in a combat zone,
  • Imminent danger or hostile fire pay,
  • Reenlistment bonuses that extend into any month served in a combat zone,
  • Pay for accrued leave earned in any month served in a combat zone, and
  • Part of any student loan repayment made for the year while serving in a combat zone.

The exclusion doesn't cover payments from a retirement plan or a pension. Other special rules may apply.

  1. Moving Expenses

Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the deduction for job-related moving expenses is generally suspended from 2018 through 2025. However, that provision doesn't extend to active duty military personnel. If you qualify, you may write off the amount of unreimbursed moving expenses related to travel and the cost of moving household goods and personal effects.

  1. IRA Contributions

Members of the Armed Forces are subject to the same basic rules for traditional and Roth IRAs that apply to civilians. Note that you must have "earned income" to qualify for contributions to an IRA. However, if you receive tax-exempt income in a combat zone, the income is still treated as earned income for this purpose.

  1. Filing and Paying Deadlines

Absent extenuating circumstances, civilians must adhere to deadlines for reporting income and paying tax. But certain members of the military, such those who serve in a combat zone or contingency operations outside the United States, can postpone many tax deadlines. Those who qualify may get an automatic extension of time to file and pay their taxes. In contrast, civilians can only extend their filing deadline.

  1. Reservists' Travel Expenses

If you travel as a member of the Armed Forces Reserves, you can generally deduct unreimbursed travel expenses while performing reserve duties more than 100 miles from your home. You may also be able to deduct the costs of overnight stays, such as meals and lodging. The deductible amount of these expenses—claimed as an adjustment to gross income—is limited to the regular federal per diem rate for lodging, meals and incidental expenses.

Important: You don't need to itemize deductions on your tax return to take advantage of this break.

  1. Home Sale Gain Exclusion

Generally, single filers can exclude from tax up to $250,000 of gain from the sale of a home ($500,000 for married couples who file jointly). To qualify, taxpayers must have owned and used the home as their principal residence for at least two of the five years prior to the sale. However, active duty service members who are away from home due to a permanent station change can extend the 5-year period to 10 years. In other words, it becomes a 2-out-of-10-year rule for these individuals.

  1. Uniform Expenses

Previously, military personnel who itemized deductions on their federal tax returns could write off their unreimbursed expenses for uniforms not suitable for everyday wear plus the cost of their upkeep. These deductions were subject to limits for miscellaneous expenses. Although the TCJA suspends these deductions on the federal level from 2018 to 2025, certain states (for example, California) still permit state income tax deductions for uniforms.

  1. Veterans Benefits

There's a wide range of tax-free benefits available to retired military veterans. For example, disabled vets may be eligible for a 100% tax exemption for disability compensation. And permanently disabled wartime vets over 65 may qualify for tax-free pensions. However, if you receive a disability pension based on your years of service, you must include that amount or portion of a pension in your taxable income.

  1. ROTC Allowances

Military-related tax breaks aren't necessarily limited to taxpayers out of school. For participants in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program at a college, education and subsistence allowances generally aren't subject to tax. But active duty pay from a ROTC camp in the summer is taxable.

  1. Tax Return Signing

The IRS generally won't accept a joint tax return unless it's signed by both spouses. However, if one spouse is absent and can't sign due to military duties or conditions, the other spouse can sign in his or her place. In other cases, a power of attorney is generally required. A military installation's legal office may be able to lend assistance.

New Law Approves Military Spouse Credit

The SECURE 2.0 Act carves out a new tax credit of up to $500 for small businesses that encourage retirement saving by a military spouse. Under the new law, an eligible employer is entitled to a $200 credit for a military spouse who participates in a defined contribution plan (such as a 401(k) plan). Another credit of up to $300 applies to employer contributions made to each military spouse. The credit is available for the tax year that the spouse starts participating in the plan and for the next two tax years.

To qualify for this tax break, the employer must have had 100 or fewer employees who received at least $5,000 of compensation in the prior year.

Important: The credit isn't available to small businesses with just a defined benefit plan.

We Can Help

This list isn't all-inclusive. Contact your SSB tax advisor to ensure you're getting all the tax benefits you're entitled to receive for serving your country—and thank you for your service!

©  2023

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