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What is Tax-Free Income?

tax free income saves on tax

"Little by little does the trick." -Aesop

Whether you work for a paycheck or collect Social Security benefits, there are many sources of income available to you that are completely tax-free. Little by little, they can add up to a lot more money in your pocket.

What is taxable income?

This page contains updated information about many forms of tax-free income available to the average taxpayer. And it's all legal; tax law does not allow the IRS to tax the income and benefits discussed in the following sections:

Types of Tax-Free or Nontaxable Income

Here are the types of income which cannot be taxed:

  • Alimony received via court orders or decrees made after December 31, 2018 (received alimony before December 31, 2018 is taxed)
  • Profit from sale of main home
  • Employer-provided health insurance 
  • Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)
  • Adoption expense reimbursements for qualifying expenses
  • Death payments
  • Dividends of life insurance
  • Welfare benefits (including TANF) and food stamps
  • Accident and/or health insurance benefits
  • Social Security Benefits (if they are your only source of income)
  • Accident and/or health insurance benefits
  • Disability Benefits or Pension payments
  • Child Support
  • Dealer/manufacturer cash rebates
  • Long-term Care Insurance payments
  • Qualified scholarships and grants
  • Credit card rewards and points (noncash prizes less than $600 or tied to spending habits)
  • Frequent flyer miles
  • Qualified canceled mortgage debt
  • Military Allowances
  • Medical Savings Account withdrawals
  • Life insurance benefits
  • Accelerated death benefits
  • Reimbursements for theft or casualty loss
  • Disaster relief grants
  • Up to $103,900 of foreign earned income (for 2018)
  • Federal income tax refunds
  • Interest on tax-free securities
  • Interest on EE/I bonds redeemed for qualified higher education expenses
  • Payments to the beneficiary of a deceased employee
  • Relocation payments or payments in lieu of worker’s compensation
  • Rental allowance of clergyman
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Other Nontaxable or Tax Free Income

Please note that the above list is not definitive or all-inclusive. There are other forms of tax-free income listed below.

Gifts, Bequests, and Inheritances

In general, property you receive as a gift, bequest, or inheritance is not included in your gross income. However, if property you received in this manner later produces income (such as interest, dividends, or rents), that income is taxable. If property is given to a trust and income from it is paid, credited, or distributed to you, that income is taxable.

An inheritance is not reported on your income tax return, but a distribution from an inherited pension or annuity is, and is subject to the same tax as the original owner would have had to pay.

Meals and Lodging

You don't include the value of meals and lodging provided to you and your family by your employer if the fol­lowing conditions are met:

  1. The meals are furnished on the business premises of your employer and furnished for the convenience of your employer.
  2. The lodging is furnished on the business premises of your employer, furnished for the convenience of your employer, and a condition of your employment.

In addition, the amount that qualifies as a de minimis fringe benefit is nontaxable.

Sickness and Injury Payments

In general, you must report income in any amount you receive for sickness and injury payments through a health or accident plan that is paid for by your employer. If you and your employer pay for the plan, only the amount you receive that is due to your employer's payments is reported as income. However, certain payments may not be taxable to you.

Any amount paid to reimburse you for medical expenses you incurred after the plan was established is generally non-taxable income. If you pay the entire cost of a health or accident plan,don't include any amounts you receive from the plan for sickness or personal injury as income. If your plan reimbursed you for medical expenses you deducted in an earlier year, you may have to include some, or all, of the reimbursement.

In most cases, if you are covered by a health or accident insurance plan through a cafeteria plan, and the amount of the insurance premiums was not included in your income, you're not considered to have paid the premiums and you must include any benefits you receive in your income. However, if the amount of the premiums was included in your income, you are considered to have paid the premiums and any benefits you receive are non-taxable.

Tax-Free Income from Work

Here are several options for tax-free income which may be provided by your employer: 

Education Payments 

Your employer can provide up to $5,250 per year in educational aid when you take undergraduate or graduate courses. Best of all, the school courses don't have to be job-related (your employer might not like it, but the IRS does not care). This is essentially a tax-free pay raise.

Learn about more tax benefits for education.

Public Transportation Payments

With gas prices so high, have you considered using public transportation to get to work ... and saving while doing it? Your employer can purchase public transportation fare tickets, passes, or tokens for you to get to and from work. For Tax Year 2018, up to $260 per month may be provided to you tax-free.

Parking Payments 

If you drive to work and pay a fee for parking, your employer can reimburse you up to $260 per month tax free for Tax Year 2018.

Tax-Free Carpool Income

With gas prices so high, it may be time to consider starting a carpool. As the operator of your own car, any money your passengers pay you for gas or expenses is tax-free income. Generally, if you travel alone you cannot deduct commuting expenses like gas. However, reimbursements from your carpoolers which are used to cover gas, repairs, and other car operating costs are not taxable income. Note that this particular form of tax-free income is paid to you by your passengers and not your employer.

Health Insurance Premium Payments 

If you are not insured through your employer and your HMO insurance premium is $3,360, or $280 a month, your actual cost is much more than that. For this premium, the real cost would be $4,480 (Premium: $3,360 plus $1,120 income tax) per year (25% tax bracket). If you are insured through your employer, both of you will achieve the same benefit. Your income increases and the employer pays less in salary, since the insurance payments are fully deductible. In addition, the payroll taxes on insurance premiums do not apply.

Term Life Insurance Payments

Your employer can pay your premiums for term life insurance coverage of up to $50,000. You, the employee, can select a beneficiary of your choice. The employer can deduct the expense and you will have additional tax-free income.

Veterans' Benefits

Any veterans' benefits paid under any law, regulation, or administrative practice administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are generally non-taxable. These benefits include, but are not limited to:

  • Education, training, and subsistence allowances
  • Disability compensation and pension payments for disabilities paid either to veterans or their families
  • Grants for homes designed for wheelchair living
  • Grants for motor vehicles for veterans who lost their sight or the use of their limbs
  • Veterans' insurance proceeds and dividends paid either to veterans or their beneficiaries, including 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
  • The death gratuity paid to a survivor of a member of the Armed Forces who died after September 10, 2001
  • Payments made under the compensated work therapy program
  • Any bonus payment by a state or political subdivision because of service in a combat zone

Worker's Compensation

Payments you receive as worker's compensation for an occupational sickness or injury are fully tax-exempt if they are paid under a workers' compensation act or statute. The exemption also applies to payments made to your survivors. However, the exemption doesn't apply to retirement plan benefits you receive based on your age, length of service, or prior contributions to the plan, even if you retired because of an occupational sickness or injury.

If part of your workers' compensation reduces your Social Security or equivalent railroad retirement benefits received, that part is considered Social Security (or equivalent railroad retirement) benefits and may be taxable.

Still not sure if you need to file a tax return? Use our Free FILEucator tax tool to find out if you are required to (or want to) file a return!

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