Taxpaying is a civic ritual. The annual ceremony -- gathering records, completing returns, rushing to the post office -- has been diluted in recent years, especially by the rise of electronic filing. But April 15 remains a national anti-holiday of sorts. It may not be fun, but it's a touchstone of American citizenship.
Tax day has a tendency to shift slightly from year to year, depending on weekends and the proximity of Emancipation Day, a legal holiday in the District of Columbia. This year returns are due April 18. (Patriot's Day, celebrated in New England, also used to delay filing deadlines for taxpayers in some states, but not since the IRS facility in Andover, Mass., stopped processing individual returns.)
But why is April 15 the target for individual filing? Why not a different day, or even a different month?
Way Back When
As it happens, April hasn't always been tax time in America. Originally, Congress established March 1 as the deadline for filing individual returns. According to the conventional explanation, the decision was driven by the timing of the 16th Amendment. "When the 16th Amendment, which allows Congress to institute the income tax, was adopted on Feb. 3, 1913, Congress chose March 1 -- one year and a few dozen days later -- as the deadline for filing returns," explained a 2002 article in Fortune magazine.
That makes sense. Except the 16th Amendment didn't actually impose an income tax. While Delaware ratified the amendment on February 3 -- and Secretary of State Philander C. Knox certified its adoption on February 25 -- the actual income tax didn't arrive until October 3, 1913, when Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1913 (also known as the Underwood Tariff).
According to the 1913 revenue act, anyone with an annual income exceeding the exemption ($3,000 for single filers and $4,000 for married couples) was required to file a return "on or before the first day of March, nineteen hundred and fourteen." Lawmakers offered no explanation for that date, but it seems likely that it was selected to give taxpayers adequate time to gather materials and complete their returns following the end of the tax (and calendar) year.
Congress soon rethought the timing. In the Revenue Act of 1918, lawmakers gave taxpayers an extra couple of weeks, setting March 15 as the new deadline. But names notwithstanding, Congress actually passed the Revenue Act of 1918 in February of 1919, meaning that taxpayers had only a few weeks in which to complete and file their returns under the new law. The commissioner of internal revenue, Daniel C. Roper, refused to grant an outright extension to individual taxpayers, but he did establish procedures for filing an estimate and making a provisional payment (much like the procedure we use today for tax extensions).
The March 15 filing deadline remained on the books for a long time. Not until 1955 did taxpayers face a new deadline. The Internal Revenue Code of 1954 established April 15 as the tax day we all know and loathe.
According to lawmakers, the new date was all about helping taxpayers. Americans needed extra time to cope with all the extra complexity creeping into the tax law. According to House Ways and Means Committee Chair Daniel A. Reed, the later deadline would also ease the burden on harried accountants and other return preparers.
Reed acknowledged, however, that the IRS also stood to benefit from the extra month. The agency's peak workload would be spread over a longer period of time, resulting in "more efficient and economical administration and better service to our taxpayers," he noted.
Anecdotal evidence suggested that Reed's optimism might have been justified, at least initially. As the new deadline drew near in 1955, internal revenue officials reported empty offices. "It's really dead down here -- very unusual," said one IRS employee working in the Washington local office. With less than an hour until closing, the office was mostly empty.
Reports from nearby offices indicated a similar last-minute lull. Officials in the IRS's Baltimore office reported only a trickle of late filers. When asked to explain the slow pace, one official offered several theories. "More people are mailing their returns," he noted, adding, "The short form apparently requires less assistance, and of course, taxpayers had an extra month to prepare forms this year."
The numbers from Baltimore seemed to support this explanation, or at least the overall effect of the extension. The previous year, as the March 15 deadline had neared, the office had processed 500,000 returns and issued $38 million in refunds. In 1955, by contrast, with the new April deadline, the office had processed 650,000 returns on the eve of the deadline and issued refunds totaling $48 million.
Such numbers notwithstanding, a lot of taxpayers still seemed to be dragging their feet. As The Washington Post noted on April 14, "more than 1,600 Washington taxpayers 'self-helped' their way out of thousands of dollars yesterday, just barely well in advance of the Federal tax-return deadline of midnight Friday."