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Dear Liz: I’m working as a contractor in Afghanistan. Since we are overseas in a combat zone, our pay is nontaxable. Can I contribute some of this untaxed money to a Roth IRA and still be able to withdraw it tax free in retirement? I’ve heard that’s true, but the way I read the law it seems that the money has to come from “taxable” wages or something along those lines. I need clarification.
Answer: If you were serving in the military, rather than as a contractor, you would be able to contribute some of your untaxed combat-zone pay to a Roth IRA and have tax-free withdrawals in retirement. That’s a unique perk of the military, however.
Service members’ tax-free combat zone pay qualifies as income for purposes of making an IRA or Roth IRA contribution because of the 2006 Heroes Earned Retirement Opportunities Act, said Joseph Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA.
If your pay is tax free as a contractor, it’s probably because you qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion, which protects some or all of your pay from U.S. taxes (up to $95,100 for 2012), Montanaro said. Your eligibility for this exclusion has nothing to do with working in a combat zone. It has to do with your residence or physical presence abroad.
Income that is excluded this way cannot be used as compensation for the purpose of making an IRA contribution, Montanaro said. It would, however, have to be included when determining your eligibility to make a Roth contribution.