This Technical Information Release (TIR) explains the Massachusetts income tax treatment of U.S. military retirement benefits in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Barker v. Kansas, 60 U.S.L.W. 4322 (April 21, 1992). The TIR concludes that the Barker decision does not negate the validity of the distinction between contributory and non-contributory public retirement plans under G.L. c. 62, § 2(a)(2)(E). Therefore, payments from non-contributory public retirement plans, generally including military retirement benefits, remain subject to the Massachusetts personal income tax.
A. Federal Law
Under the Public Salary Act of 1939, 4 U.S.C. § 111, the United States permits individual states to tax the pay of federal officers and employees, provided that the tax does not discriminate against the officers or employees because of the source of their pay. The Supreme Court has held that preferential tax treatment of retirement income paid to former state and local government employees, based on the source of that income, violates 4 U.S.C. § 111 when it is not extended to federal retirees. Davis v. Michigan Department of the Treasury, 489 U.S. 803 (1989).
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court in Barker v. Kansas, 60 U.S.L.W. 4322 (April 21, 1992) decided that the state of Kansas discriminated against federal employees in violation of 4 U.S.C. § 111 when it taxed the retirement benefits of military retirees while exempting from tax the retirement benefits of former state employees. Because military "retirees" remain members of the U.S. armed forces and are subject to military justice, to restrictions on civilian employment, and to recall for active service, Kansas had attempted to justify its disparate tax treatment of payments to military retirees and state retirees by describing payments to military retirees as current reduced payments for current services, as opposed to the deferred compensation received by former state employees for past services. The Supreme Court rejected this distinction because payments to a military retiree are based on the retiree's rank and length of service and, in fact, resemble deferred compensation for services previously provided. The Court concluded that Kansas had violated 4 U.S.C. § 111 because its inconsistent tax treatment of state and federal retirees was not "directly related to, and justified by, significant differences between the two classes" of retirees. Barker, 60 U.S.L.W. 4322 at ----.
B. Massachusetts Statutes
Massachusetts generally imposes an income tax on the Massachusetts gross income of residents, with certain deductions and exclusions. G.L. c. 62. Massachusetts gross income is defined as federal gross income with Massachusetts modifications. G.L. c. 62, § 2. One of these modifications excludes "[i]ncome from any contributory annuity, pension, endowment or retirement fund of the United States government or the commonwealth or any political subdivision thereof, to which the employee has contributed." G.L. c. 62, § 2(a)(2)(E). See also G.L. c. 62, § 3(b)(a)(4). Under the terms of this statute, either state or federal pension payments are exempt from Massachusetts income tax if the pension funds are contributory. Military retirement benefits generally are subject to Massachusetts income tax because the military retirement system is not a contributory retirement plan. See Technical Information Release 89-6; Letter Ruling 89-1.
C. Barker Decision Does Not Invalidate Massachusetts Law
In Barker, the Supreme Court has recognized that state taxing systems do not necessarily violate 4 U.S.C. § 111 merely because they impose tax on the income of federal employees while exempting from tax the income of state employees. Rather, the Court stated that "we evaluate a state tax that is alleged to discriminate against federal employees in favor of state employees by inquiring 'whether the inconsistent tax treatment is directly related to, and justified by, significant differences between the two classes.'"
Barker, 60 U.S.L.W. 4322, at ---. Thus, significant differences between classes of federal and state employees may justify different tax treatment of the incomes of those classes of employees.
Massachusetts law does not violate 4 U.S.C. § 111 because it does not discriminate against federal retirees on the basis of the source of their pay. See TIR 89-6 (responding to the Davis decision). The significant distinctions between the structures of contributory retirement plans and non-contributory plans directly relate to and justify the difference in tax treatment of distributions from these plans. A contributory pension is one in which amounts contributed to the plan are includible in the Massachusetts gross income of the employee (or would be included in the Massachusetts gross income of the employee if the employee were a Massachusetts resident). Under a non-contributory plan, amounts contributed on behalf of an employee are not included in the gross income of the employee and are therefore not subject to tax at the time of contribution. Thus, taxing distributions from contributory plans can lead to double taxation, while taxing distributions from non-contributory plans will not.
The Supreme Court in Barker specifically refrained from invalidating different tax treatment of payments from contributory and non-contributory plans. Barker, 60 U.S.L.W. 4322, at --- n. 5. Consequently, the Barker decision does not alter the non-discriminatory distinction between payments from these plans currently found in Massachusetts law.
Commissioner of Revenue
April 28, 1992