Wouldn’t life be grand without taxes? You can’t avoid them altogether, but as an active-duty U.S. military member or a veteran, you have access to tax benefits that are mostly unavailable to other Americans. In return for your service to the country, the federal government and individual states have established tax breaks to lighten your financial load or to ease your return to civilian life.

These military service-related tax benefits fall into three groups:

  • Federal Income Tax Exclusions

    The U.S. government lets you exclude certain types of income from your adjusted gross income calculation on your tax return. In other words, some of your income is tax-free. By completely excluding certain income, you can effectively lower the total amount of income tax you owe or increase your refund, and it may also affect the amount of any tax credit you receive.

  • State Income Tax Exclusions

    State governments also designate certain types of income as tax-free for military members and veterans, so that these may be left out of gross income calculations. Because states differ in how they regard current military income and veterans’ benefits, refer to the tax laws in the state where you have permanent residency to understand what income may be excluded from state income tax.

  • Other Nontaxable State Benefits

    Aside from income tax benefits, many states offer additional benefits that are nontaxable. Some states collect no property taxes, or only partial sums, on veterans’ or returning service members’ primary residences. Some other states, such as Arkansas, may waive some or all of veteran or military residents’ annual vehicle taxes or fees. Again, you’ll need to look up the specific tax laws for your state of permanent residency.

Eligibility for Veterans Tax Benefits

To take advantage of veteran tax benefits, you must first confirm your status as a veteran. You must be a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, which means you were an officer or enlisted personnel controlled by the Secretaries of Defense, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force or Coast Guard. Merchant Marines — U.S. civilian mariners — and American Red Cross members are not members of the Armed Forces. With some exceptions, such as hardship, you must also meet these requirements:

  • You served on active duty for a minimum of 24 months.
  • The minimum 24 months were continuous.
  • Your discharge status was not “dishonorable.”

Federal Tax Exclusions for Veterans

The federal government assigns tax breaks to military members based on whether they are on active duty or veterans, as they typically bring in different kinds of income resulting from their respective phases in their lives and careers. This section explains tax exclusions that apply to veterans.

Military Retirement Pay

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) views retirement pay as taxable income. If your military retirement pay is based on age or length of service, you’ll still pay income tax on it.

Lesson Learned

The upside is that military retirement pay is considered pension, not wages, so it is not considered earned income, and the government won’t collect Social Security taxes on it.

Survivors Benefit Plan

As a military retiree, you may have elected to participate in the Survivors Benefit Plan (SBP), an insurance plan that pays out monthly amounts to your beneficiaries upon your death, to prevent against financial hardship over the loss of your retirement income. If you have an SBP, you likely are paying a monthly premium that is automatically taken out of your retirement pay.

Lesson Learned

Your SBP payments are excluded from taxable income. The premium is automatically deducted from your military retirement pay before any deduction is taken for federal income tax.

Military Disability Retirement Pay

If you receive military disability retirement pay, it is excluded from taxable income and is not part of your gross income calculations. This nontaxable amount includes any annuity, pension or other service-connected disability compensation you receive as a disabled veteran.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determines whether you are a disabled veteran. Generally, you can obtain disabled veteran status with the VA if your disability is from a combat-related injury or sickness that meets any one of these requirements:

  • Arose during service
  • Worsened or intensified during service
  • Was a direct result of your service (as determined by the VA)

What if the VA grants disabled veteran status after you have retired and after you have already paid taxes on military retirement pay based on your years of service?

Lesson Learned

Your retroactive disabled veteran status, which is based on your service-connected disability, entitles you to claim a refund on the taxes you previously paid on your military retirement pay — pay which you would have been able to exclude from income taxes based on your disabled status. Of course, to get your refund, you’ll need to file an amended return for every year you paid taxes.

Veterans’ Benefits

Numerous other veterans’ benefits are excluded from income tax. Some of the benefits are explained in more detail further below. Here, you’ll find the IRS’s list of nontaxable benefits for veterans:

Veterans’ Benefits
  • Education, training and subsistence allowances

  • Disability compensation and pension payments for disabilities paid to veterans or their families

  • Grants for homes designed for wheelchair living

  • Grants for motor vehicles for veterans who have lost their sight or the use of their limbs

  • Veterans’ insurance proceeds and dividends paid to veterans or their beneficiaries (this includes the proceeds of a veteran’s endowment policy paid before death)

  • Interest on insurance dividends left on deposit with the VA

  • Benefits under a dependent-care assistance program

  • Any bonus payment by a state or political subdivision because of service in a combat zone

  • Death gratuities to the survivors of military members who died after September 10, 2001

Housing Grant Tax Status

Have you received a VA grant to purchase or modify a home because of a disability such as blindness, severe burns or the loss of (or loss of use of) your arm, leg or lower extremities? The VA operates two housing programs — the Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) and the Special Housing Adaptation (SHA) grants — to assist veterans with qualifying disabilities. Housing grants through these programs are nontaxable.

Through these two programs, some disabled veterans with permanent and total service-connected disabilities receive grants to purchase or construct adapted homes that will enable them to live more independent lives. Disabled veterans may use the grants to modify their existing houses to accommodate their disabilities. For instance, if your disability requires you to use a wheelchair, a housing grant that allows you to purchase a house adapted for wheelchair living may be nontaxable. In certain situations, you may use the grants to pay down a mortgage loan on a house that’s already been adapted but was purchased without the VA’s financial assistance. The bottom line is that if you received grant funds from the VA to purchase an adapted home or modify your existing home to accommodate your disability, you can exclude that grant money from your income.

Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) Program

Any payments you receive from the VA’s Compensated Work Therapy Program — also referred to as Veterans Industries — are nontaxable. The CWT is a vocational rehabilitation program usually found in VA medical centers. Among its goals are opening up vocational opportunities for veterans (which includes matching veterans to competitive jobs) and assisting veterans in restoring physical and psychological functions. Veterans may receive payments through the program — such as through its Transitional Work Program — and any payments or earnings are nontaxable.

Life Insurance

The VA offers seven varieties of life insurance, and, for the most part, VA life insurance proceeds are nontaxable. Insurance proceeds may become taxable under certain situations — for example, when proceeds are left to an estate, including the veteran’s estate. These proceeds are used in determining the value of the veteran’s estate, and it is subsequently taxed.

Interest income you receive as a result of life insurance proceeds is nontaxable. For example, if life insurance proceeds are paid to a veteran’s beneficiary in 36 equal monthly payments, the interest included in the payments is tax-exempt.

Education & Training

A military discharge usually means it’s time to assimilate into civilian life. That may involve pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree at a college or university, or completing other relevant training for your vocation. The VA may assist in covering the cost of your education or training by providing allowances for tuition, housing and other costs. Through initiatives such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill® Yellow Ribbon Program, Montgomery GI Bill Program and the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance program, you or your dependent may receive an allowance. One of the advantages of such allowances is that they are tax-free.

Federal Tax Exclusions for Current Service Members

Different income tax rules apply for active-duty members. To properly pay your taxes as a current member, you’ll need to understand not only what types of pay and allowances you must include in your gross income, but also what types of items you can exclude. Keep in mind that although items may be excluded and nontaxable, the IRS may still require you to disclose them in your tax return. Current service members can separate their nontaxable items into these categories:

Federal Tax Exclusions
  • Pay

  • Death allowances

  • Family allowances

  • Living allowances

  • Moving allowances

  • Travel allowances

  • In-kind military benefits

Excluded pay

Perhaps the most significant of nontaxable income for current members is combat zone pay. With the exception of officers, whose excluded amount is capped, all other members can exclude the entire amount of compensation they receive for active service while in combat zones. They can also exclude any state bonus payments they receive for serving in combat zones.

Lesson Learned

Current service members can also include other types of pay from their gross income, such as group-term life insurance, defense counseling services, professional education and disability.

Death allowances

Serving the country means volunteering to put your life at risk. Death is a grim reality in the military.

Lesson Learned

You do not pay tax on expenses for burial services, death gratuity payments to eligible survivors and costs for dependents’ travel to a burial site.

Family allowances

While you are on active duty, you receive allowances to cover some family expenses.

Lesson Learned

Those providing for certain educational expenses for your dependents and those related to family emergencies, separation and evacuation to a place of safety are all nontaxable.

Living allowances

You may receive living allowances during your active-duty service. Some of these allowances are nontaxable. They include: Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS), Overseas Housing Allowance (OHA) and the housing and cost-of-living allowances abroad that are paid for by the U.S. government or foreign government.

Lesson Learned

See the links to IRS pages in the Resources below for a complete list of living allowance exclusions.

Moving allowances

Being on active duty means that you and your family are transplanted to different locations. Sometimes, this relocation can disrupt your life. The federal government includes moving allowances as a nontaxable item, as long as your move meets certain time and distance requirements if the move isn’t a permanent change of station. You may receive these tax-free allowances for moving household items, personal items, trailers or mobile homes. You may also receive allowances for storage, temporary lodging and related expenses, move-in housing, and military base realignment and closure benefits.

Lesson Learned

The personal use of a government-provided vehicle is not an excluded item, nor are expenses from moving furniture and other goods purchased while moving from your old home to your new home.

Travel allowances

The federal government is cognizant of how difficult it is to be apart from family, especially your children, when you are on active duty. It includes those allowances for travel among the items excluded from taxes. Your travel allowances include: one annual round trip for dependent students, transportation for you or your dependents during a ship overhaul or inactivation, reassignment into a dependent-restricted status and leave between consecutive overseas tours. In addition, you can exclude per diem allowances.

Lesson Learned

Keep track of your travel-related expenses for reimbursement. But don’t include your travel allowances as income if you’re active military.

In-kind military benefits

Excluded items don’t always come in the form of dollar bills. Sometimes, you receive “income” through services and program participation; these are called in-kind benefits. You can exclude from your income the following in-kind benefits: dependent-care assistance programs, legal assistance, medical or dental care, commissary or exchange discounts and space-available travel on government aircraft.

Lesson Learned

The IRS considers most in-kind benefits as income except if you’re active military. See the links to IRS pages in the Resources below for a complete list of in-kind benefit exclusions.

State Tax Exclusions for Veterans

If you are fortunate enough to live in one of the seven states without a state income tax on individuals, you will only need to file your federal tax return and pay income taxes to Uncle Sam. Otherwise, for active-duty members and veterans who are residents of other states, knowing what types of income are subject to or excluded from a state’s income tax is critical. Don’t forget that even states without income taxes will impose taxes on other property, including real estate and vehicles.

Pension Exemption

Many states exempt veterans’ pensions — or military retirement pay — from their income tax. Aside from the seven states that do not have income taxes and therefore don’t tax your military retirement pay, approximately 18 other states exclude military retirement pay from taxable income. Of the remaining states, eight of them impose a limited or conditional tax. This means that the majority of states do not collect taxes on military retirement pay, so there’s a decent chance your state won’t take a bite out of your pension check.

Lesson Learned

If you’re receiving a military pension, learn what exemption your state allows for that income. See the table State Tax Benefits at a Glance on this page to learn how your state taxes your pension.

Property Tax Exemption

More than 25 states provide either partial or full exemptions of property taxes to disabled veterans. Some states that offer full exemptions from property taxes on primary residences to qualifying veterans include: Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire and Virginia. Many states don’t offer full exemptions but rather contingent-based exemptions restricted to veterans above a certain age or below certain income levels. Some states’ partial exemptions are limited by specified dollar amounts or by property values. For example, a disabled veteran in Georgia is eligible to receive a $60,000 exemption from tax on a primary residence. In Idaho, the disabled veteran must be at least 10 percent disabled as a result of service.

Lesson Learned

State property tax exemptions are tricky for veterans and active military. See the table State Tax Benefits at a Glance on this page to learn how your state taxes your property.

State DMV Fee Exemption

Most Americans drive cars, and states are quick to tax you for owning one. Some states will give disabled veterans a free pass from vehicle excise taxes, registration fees and other fees. Veterans may need to provide proof of disability. Your state may limit your exemption to one motor vehicle that you own and operate for personal use and not for a business. Some states may provide partial waivers of registration fees. In Connecticut, veterans are exempt from paying license and examination fees for one period, while Medal of Honor recipients and former prisoners of war receive free vehicle registration.

Lesson Learned

Here’s another instance where state rules vary widely. See the table State Tax Benefits at a Glance on this page to learn if your state waives any DMV fees for you.

College Tuition Fee Waivers

Once they are discharged from the military, many veterans find they need to go back to school to jumpstart their civilian careers. Many states offer veterans breaks on educational costs by waiving college tuition and registration fees at their state schools. Sometimes, states will waive tuition for deceased veterans’ children within defined age ranges.

Lesson Learned

Talk to a college counselor to learn if your state offers tuition or fee discounts to veterans. If the first counselor you speak to is unsure or does not know, ask another until you get a knowledgeable answer.

How Veterans Can Tap Into State Tax Benefits

Every state operates its own VA office, and it’s worth your time to seek out yours to ensure you receive the proper and most advantageous tax benefits and programs for your situation. By now you know that states offer varying veterans’ benefits, tax exemptions or waivers, and your state may offer a benefit unavailable to veterans of other states. Refer to the list of state VA offices below for contact information for your state’s office. One caveat: You may be stationed in one state temporarily but qualify for VA benefits in another state. Your VA benefits are tied to the state where you reside permanently.

State Tax Benefits at a Glance

State Veterans Home Pages Tax Information State Contacts
Alabama Dept. of Veterans Affairs See “Alabama Laws Affecting Veterans” for state exemptions. Contact
Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs No state income tax Contact
Arkansas Dept. of Veterans Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Arizona Dept. of Veterans’ Services See “Arizona Veterans Information Directory” for state benefits and exemptions. Contact
California Dept. of Veterans Affairs State tax benefits (no income tax exemption available) Contact
Colorado Division of Veterans Affairs State tax benefits (no income tax exemption) Contact
Connecticut Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs State income tax exemption (“Guide to Benefits“) Contact
Delaware Commission of Veterans Affairs State tax benefits Contact
Florida Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs No state income tax (See “Florida Veterans’ Benefits Guide 2015“) Contact
Georgia Dept. of Veterans Service State income tax exemption Contact
Hawaii Office of Veterans’ Services State tax exemptions and benefits Contact
Idaho Division of Veterans Services State income tax exemption Contact
Illinois Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs See “State of Illinois Benefits for Veterans” for state exemptions. Contact
Indiana Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Iowa Dept. of Veterans Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs Office State income tax exemption Contact
Kentucky Dept. of Veterans Affairs See “State and Federal Veteran Benefits Information” for tax exemption. Contact
Louisiana Dept. of Veterans Affairs See “2015 Guide to Veterans’ Benefits” for tax exemption. Contact
Bureau of Maine Veterans’ Services State income tax exemption Contact
Maryland Dept. of Veterans Affairs See “Veterans State Benefits & Services Guide” for tax exemption. Contact
Massachusetts Dept. of Veterans’ Services State income tax exemption Contact
Michigan Dept. of Military and Veterans Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Minnesota Dept. of Veterans Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Mississippi State Veterans Affairs Board See “2015-2016 State Benefits for Mississippi Veterans, Dependents, and Survivors” for income tax exemption. Contact
Missouri Veterans Commission See “2015-2016 Missouri Benefits & Resource Guide For Veterans & Military” for income tax exemption Contact
Montana Veterans Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Nebraska Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Nevada Office of Veterans Services No state income tax (other tax exemptions available) Contact
New Hampshire State Office of Veterans Services No state income tax (See other tax credits and exemptions) Contact
New Jersey Dept. of Military & Veterans Affairs See “New Jersey Veterans’ Benefits Guide” for tax exemption. Contact
New Mexico Dept. of Veterans’ Services No state income tax exemption, but other tax exemptions apply. Contact
New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs State income tax exemption (other exemptions apply) Contact
North Carolina Dept. of Military & Veterans Affairs See “VA Benefits” for tax exemption. Contact
North Dakota Dept. of Veterans Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Ohio Dept. of Veterans Services State income tax exemption (Click on “Finance”) Contact
Oklahoma Dept. of Veterans Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Oregon Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs State income tax exemption (other benefits available) Contact
Pennsylvania Dept. of Military and Veterans Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
Rhode Island Division of Veterans Affairs See “State of Rhode Island Laws Pertaining to Veterans” for tax exemption. Contact
South Carolina Division of Veterans’ Affairs State income tax exemption Contact
South Dakota Dept. of Veterans Affairs No state individual income tax (other benefits available) Contact
Tennessee Dept. of Veterans Services No state income tax (other benefits available) Contact
Texas Veterans Commission No state income tax (see for other benefits that apply) Contact
Utah Dept. of Veterans and Military Affairs No state income tax exemption, but other tax exemptions and benefits apply. Contact
Vermont Office of Veterans Affairs State tax exemption and benefits apply Contact
Virginia Dept. of Veterans Services State income tax exemption Contact
Washington State Dept. of Veterans Affairs No state income tax (other benefits available) Contact
West Virginia Dept. of Veterans Assistance State income tax exemption Contact
Wisconsin Dept. of Veterans Affairs State income tax exemption (other benefits available) Contact
Wyoming Veterans Commission No state income tax (other benefits apply) Contact

The Best Way to Apply for Veterans’ Benefits

The first step to applying for veterans’ benefits is to register with the federal government through its self-service website, eBenefits.va.gov. This joint website of the VA and the U.S. Department of Defense provides numerous resources covering veterans’ matters.

Once you register and receive your DS Logon — a secure, self-service login ID account for accessing numerous federal government websites — you’ll be able to access records about yourself, including official military personnel documents on eBenefits.va.gov. Through this website, you also can register your direct deposit information for benefits you are eligible to receive, check your status for disability compensation claims and apply for benefits.

What You Need to Register for eBenefits

To properly register with the eBenefits system and obtain your official DS Logon account, you’ll need to already be enrolled in the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). DEERS is a computerized database containing personal and eligibility information on service members and their eligible family members. Active duty and retired service members are registered in DEERS automatically. You may find that you need to update your personal information, and you can do that on the website. If you find that you are not enrolled in DEERS, you must correct the error and update your information before you can proceed.

With your DEERS enrollment, you can obtain your DS Logon account in one of three ways:

  • Online through the eBenefits website.

  • By telephone through the VA. Call 800-827-1000 (options 7, 7, 0) and provide your Social Security number, checking or savings account number, and the dollar amount of your most recent electronic fund transfer.

  • In person through a VA regional office. Bring your two I-9 identity documents. Once your identity has been verified, you’ll receive an activation letter via U.S. mail within 12 business days. Use the information in this letter to activate your account online.

Take Ownership of Your Military Tax Preparation: Questions & Answers

expert John Eakins expert

John Eakins, through his company Military Tax Services, specializes in tax preparation for active-duty military members from all 50 states. He started his firm — which focuses exclusively on military members and their tax issues — because he continually found mistakes made by other tax preparers that were not devoted to military tax preparation on a full-time, year-round basis. Eakins discusses the tax facts that active military members must know.

What are typical issues military members face with their tax returns?

The number-one issue I’ve seen is inconsistency in tax preparation that results from different people preparing a member’s return year after year. (Military members are constantly moving from place to place.) In one year, the member is in a foreign country, so someone back home prepares it. Another year, the member has his mother-in-law prepare the return. The following year, the member prepares it himself. There’s no consistency, which often leads to problems. Different people do taxes in different ways, and you open yourself up to potential mistakes every year.

The other issue arises from state tax changes. States make changes to their tax codes. It may not happen every single year, but when it does, the state doesn’t send letters to inform members [and so members don’t know about them and don’t make adjustments to their tax preparation].

Which states are more tax-friendly to military?

Those states that don’t have any income taxes — such as Texas and Florida — obviously are more tax friendly because you don’t have to pay. Of states that do impose income taxes, there are 10, maybe 12, in which, if you’re an active military resident, the states don’t withhold any taxes. It simplifies things for these residents. Ohio and New York are on this list, so if you’re active military and a resident of New York, you get a free pass from state income taxes. Also included on the list are Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Vermont.

Which states cause the most problems for active-duty military?

In Maryland, you pay a federal, state and county tax, so you can’t e-file your return if you don’t indicate what county you’re from. Some other states also have county taxes. A lot of times you don’t find out you need to pay county tax until you go to do your return. North Carolina is another tough state, especially for married couples. For example, a service member from North Carolina makes $30,000 per year. The state of residency stays with you no matter where you are located during active duty. Suppose the service member’s spouse is from Indiana, and she has a job and maintains residency in Indiana. She makes $70,000 per year, so together you have gross income of $100,000. North Carolina will take a percentage of your [combined] gross income and then tax you based on that amount. Let’s say the percentage is 70 percent, so you’re taxed on $70,000, even though much of that amount is sourced from Indiana. You’ll still pay tax on the Indiana-sourced income. I think that’s grossly unfair, but there’s not anything I or any other software program can do about it.

What residency issues affecting taxes have you seen military members face?

Sometimes you need to go into a software program and manually change amounts and use a calculator. Take California as an example. Suppose you’re active military and deployed to a location not in California, even though you are a California resident. You are deployed for nine months on a boat and you are not in California. The state of California doesn’t withhold taxes from your paycheck during your deployment. When you return to California and do your taxes, you’ll find that every software program will look at your income based on 12 months. In California, taxes were only withheld for three months because you were deployed for the other nine months. You have to manually go into the software and calculate your tax withholding on a pro rata basis so that you pay taxes based on three months and not 12 months.

The Military Spouses Residency Relief Act (MSRRA) also creates a disconnect between what’s on paper – which is giving spouses of military members the same tax benefits as their military spouses — and what works in reality. For example, suppose the husband is from Texas, goes to California, meets someone there and marries her. He then gets transferred to North Carolina. He doesn’t have to pay North Carolina tax because he’s a resident of Texas, but his wife is still a California resident, so she would have to pay North Carolina taxes. Even more confusing is that each state has a different interpretation of the MSRRA ruling. Some states are friendlier than others. It’s a good rule but just not practical in a lot of cases.

Do you have any other advice to military members?

One thing that is always a red flag to me is when you owe income taxes to a state on your return. The military withholds taxes from your paycheck, and there should have been enough withholding to offset your state tax liability at the end of the year. That’s something I would be critical of, especially if you’re married and one of you owes money. I’ve seen members go ahead and pay it if it’s a small amount — like $87. The correct answer might have been that they were owed a $200 refund. I’m always skeptical.

The bottom line is that you need to become your own expert and take ownership. If you’re single and from Texas, which has no state income tax, then use TurboTax because you’ll probably have a very simple tax situation. But if you have a spouse with income from a different state, or you own a house or pay for day care, you may want to reach out to an expert. Ask that expert questions like, “Why is this? How does that work? What’s the benefit of this?” If you get transferred to another location, pick up where you left off. Don’t just shoot in the dark and take the expert’s word for it.

More Tax Information for Active Military & Veterans

IRS Members of the Military Tax Information

A list of nine IRS documents focusing on federal income tax preparation for military members, including those in combat zones.

IRS Filing Extensions and Tax Return Preparation Assistance for Military Personnel Stationed Abroad

If you are in the military stationed abroad or are in a combat zone during the tax filing season, you may qualify for certain automatic extensions.

IRS Releases Guidance on How to Claim Expanded Veterans Tax Credit

Guidance and forms that employers can use to claim the newly-expanded tax credit for hiring veterans.

GI Bill is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site.