CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Today's the deadline for filing income tax returns. Why two days late this year? First, because April 15 was Sunday -- and second, because on April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation freeing slaves inside the District of Columbia. So Monday was D.C. Emancipation Day, giving federal employees yet another of their many days off, and the tax deadline was delayed.
If you think the tax timetable is complicated, it's simple compared to the bizarre tangle presented by the maze of technicalities that stun people trying to prepare their own returns.
If you look at a form and see something like "Short-term gain from Form 6252 and short-term gain or (loss) from Forms 4684, 6781 and 8824," your brain probably boggles in complete confusion. It's like trying to read an insurance policy.
Why, for heaven's sake, is it impossible for average, well-educated Americans to understand how to pay their taxes? No wonder most families now hire accountants or other specialists to do it. Millions of taxpayers sign their prepared returns and write checks without quite knowing what they're doing.
The Kansas City Star called U.S. tax laws "by far the most diabolical tax code on the face of the planet," adding:
"Seventy-five years ago, the instruction booklet for Form 1040 was two pages. Today it's nearly 200. The tax code in all its malignant glory is nearly 4 million words. No one fully understands what those words mean. Ninety percent of individual taxpayers have given up trying to decrypt the code's Delphic language. They hire somebody else to do it, or try. This year, individual taxpayers and businesses will spend more than 7 billion hours as tax-code hostages. Imagine the load that would be lifted from the economy if that burden could be cut, say, in half."
Politicians endlessly promise to simplify the tax code -- but wind up making it more indecipherable. Since the last major reform in 1986, when many deductions were eliminated and the top rate lowered to 28 percent, 15,000 revisions have been added.
For example, the Alternative Minimum Tax, first imposed to nab super-wealthy moguls who pay no tax at all, has been rejiggered so much that it now hits some middle-class folks earning $75,000.
Last year, President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission recommended closing loopholes, lowering rates and simplifying the labyrinth. But, of course, Congress bogged down in partisan warfare, and nothing is done.
The last-minute tax filing rush is so stressful that a recent study found that more car wrecks occur on deadline day.
Whether you understand what you're doing or not, you must get your returns postmarked today -- if you haven't already filed, by postal mail or cyber-filing.