The verdict is in: some tax years really are worse than others. 100 years ago this week, Americans struggled to meet the nation’s first tax filing deadline and the process was fraught with confusion. In 1913, lawmakers established March 1, 1914 as the filing deadline (Congress later changed the date to March 15 and then to April 15). This gap gave the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) just five months to prepare.
It was not nearly enough time. As the filing deadline drew near, BIR offices were flooded with inquiries from anxious filers. Taxpayers found the laws confusing and the outcome was that many taxpayers were running late.
Returns piled up quickly in New York, LA and Chicago. The Los Angeles Times estimated that a mere half of returns had been filed by the deadline. “The impression prevails that there will be a big delinquent list for someone to handle after the flag drops on the slow ones tomorrow,” the paper reported.
Wealthy taxpayers seemed particularly guilty of slow filing, but there were larger problems brewing farther from home, where expatriate Americans were wondering where they could even get their hands on a form.
Officials at the US Embassy and US consulate didn’t have any forms to distribute and as it turned out, official forms did not arrive in Paris until mid-February, leaving precious little time for meeting the March deadline.
The problems in Paris were symptomatic of larger issues plaguing that first filing season. Both the country and the BIR (now known as the Internal Revenue Service) weren’t ready for that first deadline. We can all be thankful that we now have a century of experience with the process as we approach our own tax deadline this year.
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