9 Tax Considerations For Transitioning Servicemembers

A transition from active duty is a very turbulent time.  Whether you are retiring, separating, or going to the Reserves, there are a lot of financial impacts to your life.  It’s important to take some time to recognize what those impacts look like.  If you know the tax consequences before your transition, then you’ll make…
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A transition from active duty is a very turbulent time.  Whether you are retiring, separating, or going to the Reserves, there are a lot of financial impacts to your life.  It’s important to take some time to recognize what those impacts look like.  If you know the tax consequences before your transition, then you’ll make more informed financial decisions.  Below are 9 ways your tax situation might change.

Tax Consideration #1:  Loss of allowances and tax exclusions

This is probably the most commonly recognized tax impact.  Most servicemembers realize they have to make considerably more as a civilian to equal the amount of after-tax dollars they see in the military.

For example, an unmarried E-5 over 8 years living in Norfolk, Virginia would earn in one year:

  • Base pay:  $2,989.80 X 12:  $35,877.60 (taxable)
  • Basic allowance for housing:  $1,362 X 12:  $16,344 (non-taxable)
  • Basic allowance for subsistence:  $368.29 X 12:  $4,419.48 (non-taxable)
  • Total compensation:  $56,641.08
  • Total taxable compensation:  $35,877.60

It’s difficult to calculate an exact tax liability without a fully developed case study.  However, there are a couple of things worth pointing out here:

  • How much compensation is tax-free:  There’s over $20,000 in tax-free allowance in this person’s compensation.  That over one-third of this compensation is tax free should highlight how powerful this benefit is.  As you include incentive pays and bonuses, this number might change.  However, it’s impossible to overstate how important this benefit is.
  • Marginal tax bracket:  In this case, the E-5 in question would be at the top end of the 15% marginal tax bracket.  However, if the total compensation was taxable, that person would then be in the 25% tax bracket.  This means that for every dollar of additional income, this person would be paying an additional 10% in taxes.  Your marginal tax bracket also affects the calculation of capital gains tax.

The related loss of combat zone tax exclusion amplifies this difference.  Many servicemembers find themselves in the 10% or 15% tax bracket during deployment years and the 25% or 28% tax bracket when they’re not deployed.

Tax Consideration #2: Section 121 tax exclusion

Section 121 of the tax code allows you to exclude up to $250,000 ($500,000 for a married couple filing jointly), on your home sale.  In order to do this, you have to meet certain ownership and use requirements.  The use requirement states that you must have lived in the home for 2 of the previous 5 years (730 days or more) in order to qualify.

However, there is a clause known as ‘Stop the Clock.’  This allows active duty members to suspend the use requirement for up to ten years if they receive orders to a duty station at least 50 miles from their home.

This clause only applies to active duty military, so you’ll want to consider the tax impact of selling before and after transition.  This holds especially true for a home that’s been converted into a rental, and that you do not intend to move back to.

Tax Consideration #3: Terminal leave sell-back

If you’re in a position to take terminal leave, you’ll have to decide whether to take your leave or sell it back.  There are many non-tax factors that play into this decision.  You might have a compelling job opportunity, need the time to relocate, or return to school.

However, you should keep in mind two things about selling back your terminal leave:

  • You only receive compensation on selling your base pay.  Your terminal leave sellback does not include allowances, bonuses, or other pays.
  • Any terminal leave that you sell back is taxable.

Tax considerations shouldn’t be your primary focus on whether you sell or take your terminal leave.  However, you should keep in mind the tax impact of your decision.

Tax Consideration #4: Change in state income taxes

Most people know that once you establish a residence in a state, you can keep that state as your home of record.  This applies even when you PCS from that state.  Most people also know that the Military Spouses Residency Relief Act extends this privilege to military spouses.  For people who live in a state with no income taxes, this is a tremendous tax benefit.  This allows for two benefits:

  • The obvious benefit of not having to pay state income tax
  • The ability to automatically deduct state sales tax on Schedule A of your tax return.  Normally, the IRS allows you to deduct either state income tax or state sales tax on Schedule A of your tax return.  However, you cannot deduct both.  If you’re in a position where you don’t have to pay state income tax, then you can automatically deduct sales tax.  This is especially great in years in which you incur big expenses, or you when you live in a state with high sales tax.

Keep in mind that as you transition from active duty, you’re stuck with the tax laws of the state you live in.  To make it more confusing, some states treat pensions differently for tax purposes than other types of income, and some states don’t tax military retirement pay.

Tax Consideration #5:  Change in residency requirement for Earned Income Credit

For those of you who might file and claim earned income credit (EIC) on your tax returns, there is a clause that allows active duty members to live OCONUS with their child and remain eligible for EIC.  However, the eligibility requirement for EIC dictates that:  “Your child must have lived with you in the United States for more than half of the tax year.” This means that if you transition from active duty and remain OCONUS, you will no longer meet this requirement

Tax Consideration #6:  Community Property Treatment of Active Duty Pay

In the United States, there are nine community property states:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

There are also several states and jurisdictions that allow for community property treatment of income and property:  Alaska, Tennessee, & Puerto Rico.

For those of you who live in community property states, the following IRS statement applies:  “Active military pay earned while married and domiciled in a community property state is also community income. This income is considered to be received half by the member of the Armed Forces and half by the spouse.”

However, if you retire to a community property state, all of this changes.  Community property laws generally state that military retirement pay is treated as community property to the extent that it was earned while domiciled in a community property state.  For example, if a servicemember served 20 years active duty, and was married in a community property state for 10 years, then 50% of the pension would be treated as community property.

While tax treatment of community property is outside the boundaries of this article, it is important to point this out.  If you think this might apply to you, you should consult with a tax professional in your state.  A tax professional can help you determine the treatment of your retirement pay.

Tax Consideration #7:  Tax filing deadlines

Active duty members deployed to a war zone, qualifying service outside of a war zone, or to a contingency operation outside of a war zone are automatically eligible for extensions of tax filing deadlines.  Specifically, this allows you to extend your deadline to 180 days after:

  • Your last day in a combat zone, qualifying service, or contingency operation, or
  • Any hospitalization that directly results from one of these deployments

However, this eligibility ends upon the end of active service.  This is particularly important for servicemembers who make frequent deployments and who have several years of filing tax returns under these conditions.

Tax Consideration #8:  Unreimbursed moving expenses

Normally, in order to deduct unreimbursed moving expenses from your tax return, you have to justify your move by using distance and time tests.  The IRS specifically allows an exception to this rule for members of the Armed Forces who PCS from their current duty station.  This also applies to members who are moving in conjunction with retirement or separation.  However, this exception ends when you leave active duty.

Tax Consideration #9:  Traditional IRA Contributions

There are two impacts here:

1. Deductibility of IRA contributions.  There are different rules for determining whether a traditional IRA contribution is deductible.  If you’re not covered under an employer’s retirement plan, you can deduct your traditional IRA contributions, regardless of your income.  However, active duty members are considered to be covered under an employer’s retirement plan.  This means there are certain income restrictions on traditional IRA deductions.  For most people, this isn’t much of an issue.  However, for single filers with over $61,000 in adjusted gross income ($98,000 for married couples filing jointly), there is a phase-out period.  After $71,000 ($118,000 for married), the traditional IRA contribution is not deductible (also known as a non-deductible IRA).

2. Extensions on IRA contributions.  Active duty members on deployment to a combat zone are allowed an extension to contribute to an IRA.  This extension makes the deadline for IRA contributions fall on the same date as your respective tax return due date.  IRS Publication 3 contains specific examples to help illustrate how this might play out in your tax situation.

As you transition, these rules change, so it’s important to know how those changes apply.  If your income has made you previously ineligible to deduct IRA contributions, you should reevaluate once you’re in your post-military job.  If you’re used to filing late tax returns due to deployments, remember that April 15 is the normal filing deadline.


Transitioning military personnel and their families face significant impacts to their tax situation.  Although this article covered nine of the most significant impacts, you should fully arm yourself with as much information as possible.  Doing this will put you in a better position to address financial issues as they come up.

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About Forrest Baumhover

Forrest Baumhover is a Certified Financial Planner™ and financial planner with Lawrence Financial Planning, a fee-only financial services firm. As a retired naval officer, Forrest helps veterans, transitioning servicemembers and their families address the financial challenges of post-military life so they can achieve financial independence and spend more time doing the things they love.

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  1. Antoine Gehlhausen says

    When you’re defending our country, your tax return is probably the last thing on your mind. You can’t put off filing taxes forever, but you and your spouse may qualify for a deadline extension of at least 180 days after you’ve returned from a combat zone. Generally, joint returns must be signed by both spouses. However, if your duties keep you away from home, your spouse can use a power of attorney to file a joint return on your behalf.

    • Forrest Baumhover says

      You make several great points! The IRS does make provisions to allow deployed servicemembers extended periods of time for filing tax returns and paying any taxes that they owe. Knowing what you are entitled to will help you prioritize your efforts during tumultuous times, so you can focus on what’s important at the right time.

  2. Cherie says

    One additional tip is being prepared for 1) the year of retirement that includes the new civilian employment and 2) the first full year of civilian plus retirement income.

    Our experience: Official retirement on August 1st with civilian employment starting June 22nd. Completed the W4 with current status from the military for both civilian job and retirement withholding. Our state residency also changed from a no-income-tax state to one state with high income taxes and another state with medium income taxes. (This is because the initial civilian job site was in another state for 18 months).

    When we completed income taxes the year following retirement for the year of retirement, we had a very hefty tax bill from under-withholding. We scratched our heads about how this could happen – and we consider ourselves well-versed in personal finance. Turns out each employer withheld according to calculations of that income being the ONLY income. Once the three incomes – military active duty, military retirement, and civilian – added up for that unusual year, our federal taxes were much, much more.

    The second year gave us better experience about the withholding levels for our personal filing situation.

    LESSON: Cash is king when it comes to not only the first few months of retirement, but also the first few years!

    • Forrest Baumhover says


      Thank you very much! Tax withholdings is a HUGE consideration, precisely for the reasons you outline. Separate employers withhold according to what you instruct them to in your W-4. Make sure you have cash set aside, and be prepared to pay a tax bill in your first year of transition. If you have concerns, talk to a financial planner, or to a tax professional you trust!

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