Why Tax Day Is April 15 and Other Weird Financial Deadlines

By Emily Guy Birken on 29 March 2017 0 comments

April is one of the finest months of the year. The sun breaks through the clouds, the cherry blossoms bloom, and the promise of warm weather beckons.

So of course, the IRS, in its infinite wisdom, decided to place Tax Day right smack dab in the middle of all of this riotous spring beauty.

Though I have always believed that the placement of Tax Day in mid-April is proof of the federal government's grim sense of humor, there is actually some method to their madness — both for this, and all other seemingly arbitrary financial dates and deadlines.

Here are the reasons behind some of the most head-scratching financial dates in the United States.

Why is Tax Day on April 15?

Paying federal income taxes is actually a relatively new phenomenon in American history. The first time an income tax was levied on Americans was in 1861 in order to help pay for the Civil War. In 1872, the law surrounding the tax was repealed after opponents successfully argued that federal income tax was unconstitutional.

Fast forward to February 3, 1913, when Congress adopted the 16th amendment to the constitution, which allows for federal income tax. Congress also determined the first due date for filing 1913 taxes would be March 1, 1914 — one year and a couple of weeks later. March 1 offered an easy-to-remember due date that gave citizens just over a full year to get used to being taxpayers, gather up their receipts into the early 20th century version of a shoe box, and file their first returns.

Then in 1918, the due date was moved to March 15, for reasons that no one in Congress saw fit to explain or write down.

Congress again moved the filing due date in 1955, this time to the now-familiar date of April 15. According to the IRS, the date change helped to spread out the tax season workload for IRS employees.

However, there may be a slightly more mercenary reason for the date change: According to Ed McCaffery, a University of Southern California law professor and tax guru, by the mid 1950s, the income tax was applying to increasing numbers of middle class workers, which meant the government had to issue more refunds. "Pushing the deadline back gives the government more time to hold on to the money," McCaffery claimed in Fortune magazine. And the longer the government holds onto taxes that have been withheld but are destined to be refunded, the more interest it earns on the money.

Okay, so why is Tax Day on April 18 this year?

If you look at an April calendar for 2017, you'll see that April 15 falls on a Saturday this year, which means we get a little extension, since Tax Day can't fall on a weekend. However, you might be confused as to why we get an extension to Tuesday, April 18, instead of Monday, April 17.

The reason for our extra day is a Washington, D.C. holiday known as Emancipation Day. Though only Washington, D.C. observes this holiday, a federal statute enacted decades ago states that holidays observed in our nation's capital have a nationwide impact.

Why was 65 chosen as full retirement age for Social Security?

When the Social Security Act was officially adopted in 1935, the age of 65 was chosen as the standard retirement age for beneficiaries. Why was that age chosen as the proper time for full retirement? Why not 63 or 67 or 70?

There are a couple of persistent myths out there about this choice, but they are nothing more than misconceptions:

Myth #1: People would die before collecting

The age of 65 was chosen so that people would not live long enough to collect benefits. According to life expectancy actuarial tables from 1930, the average life span was 58 for men and 62 for women, which would make it seem as if Social Security was designed to never make a payout to beneficiaries. However, this myth stems from an unfamiliarity with actuarial tables, which offer an average of all life spans, starting from birth. High infant mortality in the 1930s lowered the overall rate of life expectancy, but anyone who made it to adulthood had a much better chance of reaching age 65 and collecting benefits.

Myth #2: Bismarck was 65

The age of 65 was chosen because Otto von Bismarck — the author of the world's first old-age social insurance program upon which our Social Security program was partially based — was 65 when Germany adopted his program. This myth is false on several counts. Bismarck was actually 74 when the German system was adopted, and Germany initially set the retirement age at 70. Germany's retirement age was not lowered to 65 until 1916, at which point Bismarck had been dead for nearly two decades.

The truth behind 65

The actual reason why 65 was chosen as the initial full retirement age for Social Security is pretty boring. The Committee on Economic Security, which Franklin D. Roosevelt created to propose Social Security legislation, conducted a comprehensive analysis of actuarial studies, domestic private pension systems in America, and the social insurance experience in other countries. Based upon that research, the committee recommended 65 as the standard retirement age for Social Security.

Why is 59½ the minimum age to take distributions from tax-deferred retirement accounts?

When it comes to tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, you are not allowed to take distributions until you have reached the magical age of 59½. Otherwise, you will owe a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty on the amount you withdraw, in addition to the ordinary income tax you'll owe whenever you take a distribution.

So why is the IRS asking you to celebrate half-birthdays when you're nearly 60 years old? Congress used the age of 59½ as the earliest withdrawal age because life insurance actuarial tables consider you to be 60 years old once you have reached the age of 59 and six months — and at the time that the rules were put in place, 60 was a relatively common age for retirement.

Why must you begin taking required minimum distributions from tax-deferred retirement accounts at age 70½?

Of course, the IRS is not just about picking random minimum ages for when you can take distributions from tax-deferred retirement accounts — they also have a random age for when you must take distributions from those accounts.

Since the money in your tax-deferred account was placed there before you paid taxes on it, Uncle Sam does want you to eventually pull the money out again so he can get his cut of the money in the form of taxes. That means the IRS requires each account holder to begin withdrawing money during the year that they reach age 70½. This is called the required minimum distribution (RMD).

But unlike the 59½ rule, 70½ does not actually mean your half-birthday. The IRS makes a distinction between those individuals born in the first half of the year and those born in the second half. If your birthday falls between January 1 and June 30, you have to take your first RMD during the calendar year you turn 70. But if your birthday falls between July 1 and December 31, then you don't officially have to take your first RMD until the calendar year you turn 71.

Describing this year as being when you are 70½ is actually shorthand, since some folks will be taking their first RMD the year they turn 70, and some will be taking their first RMD the year they turn 71.

Why does Social Security think New Year's babies were born in the previous year?

Unless you happen to have a January 1 birthday, you might not know about this odd piece of Social Security dating. But according to the Social Security Administration, individuals born on the first of the year are considered to have birthdays in the previous year. So Social Security will group someone with a January 1, 1954 birthday with beneficiaries who were born in 1953.

This can actually make a big difference when it comes to some Social Security benefits, particularly when those benefits are eliminated. For instance, in 2015 Congress ended the restricted application strategy for any beneficiary born after 1953. The restricted application let applicants specify which Social Security benefits they did not want to apply for, even if they were eligible for all of them. So, for example, beneficiaries who reached full retirement age could claim a spousal benefit while continuing to let their own grow. Beneficiaries who were born on January 1, 1954 were grouped with those with 1953 births — which means anyone born on January 2, 1954 had rotten luck in terms of using the restricted application.

Why does Social Security extend a year 24 hours past the time the rest of us do? This odd birth year dating occurs because the Social Security Administration groups beneficiaries who have birthdays on the first of the month with beneficiaries born in the previous month. This grouping allows first-of-the-month babies to have a little more leeway when it comes to deadlines and other requirements. In order to be completely fair with the first-of-the-month grouping, January 1 babies are then considered to have been born in the previous year.

The government is not entirely lacking in sweet rhyme and pure reason

The financial dates that we all must adhere to may seem like ridiculous and arbitrary decisions, but there was some thought put into them. Those thoughts might only make sense to the people that made the decisions, but at least we know they weren't throwing darts at a calendar.

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