Mention VA retroactive awards for disability compensation and the Strickland decision will make its way into the conversation. The Strickland court decision provides tax-free status to past taxable military retired pay due to the award of retroactive VA disability compensation.
We get numerous calls on this issue, and based on my discussions, there are some misunderstandings we need to clear up. The most common is that the Strickland decision will convert taxable retired pay…amounts above and beyond the tax-free status provided by VA compensation and Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC)…to tax-free status.
First, let me start the discussion about members who do not qualify for concurrent receipt. You fall in two camps: 1) retirees with at least 20 years of service, are VA rated at 40% or less and whose disabilities are not combat-related, or, 2) retirees less than 20 years, with any VA rating but your disabilities are not combat-related. You represent two-thirds of the retiree/VA rated population. Bad news is you don’t qualify for concurrent receipt; good news is the Strickland decision probably does you the most good.
By the way, your group is a priority for MOAA as we fight for your concurrent receipt benefits up on the Hill.
We all know that military retired pay is taxable income and VA disability compensation is tax-free. When you qualify for VA disability compensation, you have to agree to waive your retired pay by the same amount you receive in VA compensation; aka the VA Waiver. With the VA Waiver, you trade away your taxable retired pay to receive tax-free VA compensation. This is the foundation of whether you qualify to file amended tax returns to receive a tax refund.
Consider your retired pay situation had your retired pay been docked by the VA Waiver during the VA retro award period. The VA Waiver amount would have docked your taxable pay and you wouldn’t have paid taxes on the amount of income that was docked. You can file an amended tax return for those years to seek a refund for the taxes you paid on the income you wouldn’t have received.
You have to determine what the VA Waiver amount would have been in those years by backing-up the Cost Of Living Adjustments (COLAs) and/or VA rating changes.
Next, for those of you who are eligible for concurrent receipt in the form of Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay (CRDP) or CRSC, the retroactive tax-free status of retired pay is a little more complex.
Retirees eligible for concurrent receipt are: 1) retirees with 20 or more years of service, VA rating of 50% or greater, or, 2) retirees regardless of years of service and regardless of your VA rating whose disabilities are combat-related.
For you, your past retired pay, after the application of the VA retro award of disability compensation, may or may not have been impacted by a VA Waiver. As discussed above, this is all about the amount of tax you paid on income you wouldn’t have paid if the VA Waiver had applied in the past.
CRDP restores your retired pay by getting rid of the VA Waiver. In restoring your retired pay, the restored portion of pay is taxable; like regular retired pay since CRDP is regular retired pay. CRDP is being phased-in over the years. By 2014, there won’t be a VA Waiver for you CRDP eligibles**. During the phase-in, your VA Waiver amount is getting smaller each year. To determine what your tax refund would be for past years, you have to know what your actual VA Waiver amount was after the application of CRDP in those past years. In other words, you can’t claim a refund for the full amount of your VA compensation because your past pay wasn’t docked for the full amount of the VA compensation due to CRDP.
CRSC impacts retirees in a completely different way than the CRDP crowd. CRSC reimburses you for all or some of the amount of your VA Waiver. All CRSC recipients have a VA Waiver in their retired pay for the full amount of their VA compensation. Because the CRSC rating and payment is based only on the combat-related nature of your disabilities and not total disabilities as is a VA rating, it is possible that your CRSC amount is less than your VA compensation.
Because CRSC is tax-free and the amount will not be more than the VA Waiver amount, the amount of CRSC is not relevant to the amended tax return affected by the retro payment of VA compensation. CRSC payees will use the VA Waiver amount to determine their tax refund status over the retro period. It is the VA Waiver amount that docks the retired pay thereby making the past retired pay income waived by the VA Waiver amount eligible for tax-free status. Your situation is similar to the folks above who aren’t qualified for concurrent receipt.
Now that you know what you are looking for in past pays, I’ll provide a few details on how to file amended tax returns.
To change past taxable retired pay into tax-free pay, you have to file a separate amended tax return (IRS Form 1040X) for each tax filing year in involved. You are filing to get a tax refund for the income you paid taxes on that should have been tax-free had the VA Waiver amount been applied during the retro period.
Some details about how to apply for the tax refund were discussed in a recent article on this blog by Curt Sheldon, one of our guest authors. See Curt’s article for his practical insights at http://moaablogs.org/financial/2012/02/va-disability-benefits-retirement-pay-and-your-taxes/.
The tax code limits the time period to file amended tax returns due to the award of retroactive VA compensation to 4 years from the time of filing the taxes being amended. So a tax filing from 2008 can be amended in 2012. See IRS Publication 525 page 17 for more details (http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p525.pdf).
As Curt states in his article, the burden is on you to provide the background documents to make your case when you file the amended returns. Be sure to put yourself in the shoes of the IRS official reviewing your case. Assume you know nothing about VA disability compensation, military retired pay, or retroactive VA awards. Now what paperwork would you need to convince you the amended tax return is spot on?
Best wishes. When all else fails, consult an expert tax specialist.
** Technically there could be a VA Waiver amount if your retirement pay multiplier used a greater Service disability rating rather than your years of service retired pay multiplier.