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Quirks give 3 extra days as tax filers hit the wire; Tuesday is the deadline as calendar proves kind

Thanks to Emancipation Day today, Americans are freed from their taxes this year but only for an extra day.

That, plus other quirks of the calendar, means taxpayers this year lucked out with a total of three extra days in which to file and pay their taxes -- and some need every bit of that time before Tuesday's deadline.

Western New York accountants were busy over the weekend wrapping up tax returns for clients and dealing with last-minute filers needing extensions of time. Many tax preparers were ensconced in their offices Saturday and Sunday, working through a backlog of clients from recent weeks, as well as some who came through the door in recent days.

"I had a big influx in March, that we're still working through," said Steven D. Sanders, an accountant with his own practice in Cheektowaga. "I have not had a lot of people who came to me in the last day or so, [but] there's always somebody who walks in at the last minute and asks us to do their taxes."

For those clients, with such a short time remaining, it's often a matter of submitting a request to the Internal Revenue Service and the state for an extension of time until October to file the returns. That's because the returns can be complicated and may require some time for review before submitting -- time the taxpayer and preparer don't have.

"We always prepare people, if they come in too late, that we're going to file an extension," said Peter Bellanti, senior tax manager at Amato, Fox & Co. PC, who hasn't "seen anyone rush in" at the very end. "Some firms try to do them at the last minute, but we usually try to avoid that because there's too much of a chance of an error."

But while the extension itself is free, it doesn't mean an extension of time to pay. So the accountants still have to calculate a reasonable estimate of what is owed so the clients don't get penalized.

"That's the problem with the extension; it takes some work," Bellanti said. "Some people think you just get an extension, but it's not that easy. You can extend the time to file the return, but you can't extend the tax. You have to spend some time to find out what that number is."

Taxpayers are getting extra days this year because it's a leap year, adding Feb. 29 to the calendar.

In addition, the traditional April 15 deadline this year was a Sunday, which would normally push the deadline to today.

But April 16 is also Emancipation Day, a new holiday in Washington, D.C., that marks the anniversary of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, which freed more than 3,000 slaves in Washington. The date became a public holiday in 2005. So the IRS is closed today.

As a result, this year's federal tax deadline is actually Tuesday. And since New York and most other states follow the federal deadline, state taxes aren't due for another day, either.

"I'm pretty sure the entire country has until Tuesday, unless a state doesn't follow the same deadline as the U.S.," said Sanders, who is also an Amherst town councilman.

That also means taxpayers will have had three extra days to take advantage of certain deductions and benefits, such as contributing to their Individual Retirement Accounts, Bellanti said. So he's "seeing a lot of people putting money into their IRAs in the final days."

Of course, in many cases, the last-minute filers are the same clients every year, so it's very predictable. "The kind of filers that we have tend to be the same ones that want to get the extensions every year," said Jane E. Jewell, partner at Noonan & Jewell CPAs in Orchard Park. "[And] if they procrastinate on April 15, the Oct. 15 date is just as bad."

It's not much fun for the accountants, either. "Clients don't like the bearer of bad news. Nobody likes to be told they owe money," Sanders said. "That's the least pleasant part of the job, telling your client that, oh, by the way, you have a $5,000 balance due on your tax return."

Not all of the late filers this year are doing it by choice, however. Rosemarie C. Steeb, former executive director of personal financial services at Ernst & Young who now is in individual practice in Depew, said she's also seeing "a lot of delayed 1099 reporting that has caused some folks to be procrastinators this year."

That's because of changes in the information that brokers and banks had to provide to taxpayers this year, which caused them to send out the forms late and compress the amount of time left to file. "So we're seeing quite a few that are going right down to the wire on Tuesday," Steeb said.

Still, most of the procrastinators deliberately waited, she said, because "when they have a balance due, they like to not pay the government until the last possible moment."

But it's also not always clients who owe money that wait until the eleventh hour. Sanders, for example, has some clients who are still due refunds from as far back as 2008, because taxpayers have up to three years to collect refunds.

"I've got a handful of 2008 returns that we're still trying to get out that if we don't get out, the clients are losing their refunds," he said. "That would be bad."

Indeed, according to the IRS, more than $1 billion in 2008 refunds are still waiting for 1 million people who did not file a federal income tax return for that year. That includes about 60,300 people who are eligible for $61.24 million in New York State. About half of these refunds nationwide are at least $637, with a median of $686 in New York.

The reasons why the taxpayers didn't file originally may vary, but to collect that money now, they must file their 2008 return by Tuesday, as well as returns for 2009 and 2010. Otherwise, the money goes to the U.S. Treasury. Refunds will also be applied against any prior debts to the IRS or against unpaid child support or other past-due federal debts, such as student loans.