Military Personnel:

Active Duty Compensation and Its Tax Treatment

GAO-04-721R: Published: May 7, 2004. Publicly Released: May 14, 2004.

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The Department of Defense's (DOD) total military compensation package for active duty members consists of both cash and noncash benefits. Since the late 1990s, Congress and the DOD have increased military cash compensation by increasing basic pay and allowances for housing, among other things. Military members also receive tax breaks, which are a part of their cash compensation. Moreover, active duty personnel are offered substantial noncash benefits, such as retirement, health care, commissaries, and childcare. In some cases, these noncash benefits exceed those available to private-sector personnel. DOD relies heavily on noncash benefits because it views benefits as critical to morale, retention, and the quality of life for service members and their families. To better understand the military compensation system, Congress asked us to provide the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Committee on Finance with information on active duty military compensation and its tax treatment. In January 2004, we briefed Congressional staff on our preliminary observations. Because our work identified that the combat zone tax exclusion could impact some service members, Congress asked us to focus our work on military cash compensation and to do additional work to estimate the effect of the combat zone tax exclusion on service members' compensation. We provided Congress subsequent briefings that estimated the effect of the combat zone exclusion. As requested, we have updated and combined the briefings for this report to (1) summarize active duty cash compensation and describe how military compensation varies at different career points for officers and enlisted members; (2) explain how military pay is taxed and any special tax treatment of military compensation; (3) estimate the effects of interactions between the combat zone exclusion and certain tax credits on military members' compensation; and (4) describe the benefits DOD provides active duty members as well as specific programs available to members that encourage wealth building.

The foundation of military cash compensation is what the DOD calls regular military compensation--the sum of basic pay, nontaxable allowances for housing and subsistence, and the associated federal tax savings. Some members also receive additional cash compensation in the form of special pays, incentives, and other allowances. In general, regular military compensation progresses steadily with pay grade and years of service. Military service brings with it significant tax advantages. Basic pay and most other pays are generally subject to federal income tax; however, certain allowances are not taxed, such as the basic allowances for housing and subsistence. DOD considers the federal tax advantage as the additional income military members would have to earn in order to receive their current take-home pay if their allowances for housing and subsistence were taxable. In fact, DOD views the federal tax advantage as part of service members' cash compensation when it compares military pay with civilian pay. In addition, pay earned--including basic pay, bonuses, special pays, and allowances--while members are serving in one of the 15 designated combat zones is excluded from taxes. The complex interactions between the combat zone exclusion and certain tax credits (principally the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Additional Child Tax Credit) appear to be creating unintended consequences. Specifically, some low-income- earning service members who serve in a combat zone are worse off for tax purposes, while some higher-income-earning members are better off because they become eligible for a tax credit that is normally targeted to low-income workers. Benefits are a substantial portion of noncash military compensation. DOD offers a wide range of benefits to active duty members, including health care, retirement, education assistance, and installation-based benefits--that is, services found on military installations, such as commissaries and child care. Some of the benefits DOD provides encourage wealth building over a service member's career. Military retirement--a lifetime annuity generally provided to members who serve 20 years or more--is one of the primary wealth-building programs available to military members. However, DOD estimates that less than half of officers and only about 15 percent of enlisted members will become eligible for retirement. In addition, other savings programs are offered, such as the Thrift Savings Plan and the Savings Deposit Program.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: If the Congress wishes to remedy the unintended tax consequences associated with the combat zone exclusion, it may want to consider revising the rules of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Additional Child Tax Credit with respect to income earned in a combat zone.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On October 4, 2004, the President signed the Working Families Tax Relief Act of 2004 (P.L 108-311) into law. The act included legislation to include combat pay for purposes of calculating the Earned Income Tax Credit.

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