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Filing on deadline? You're not alone.

Growing number of taxpayers miss April 15 cutoff.

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 2005



Tax preparer Eva Rosenberg figured she had heard every excuse for missing the April 15 filing deadline. Then, about a decade ago, one client reeled off a wild litany.

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First, high water flooded the woman's home in Malibu, Calif. Then she moved inland, where a wildfire in the Santa Monica Hills destroyed her apartment. She moved again. An earthquake hit.

"Everything that could happen to that woman happened," recalls Ms. Rosenberg, who says her client had evidence to support her story and eventually sent the data needed to file.

It's that time of year again, when everything from incomprehensible instructions to lost receipts conspires to prevent Americans from filing their federal tax returns on time. Typically, about one-quarter of taxpayers file in the last two weeks, sometimes applying NASCAR driving techniques to reach a post office before the April 15 midnight deadline. A growing number don't make it and have to file an extension.

Why so many Americans are lax - and getting more lax - about filing taxes remains something of a mystery. Among the suspected factors: more complex forms and taxpayers with busier lives.

"The average person doesn't live and breathe taxes," says Denise Sposato, a spokeswoman for H&R Block in Kansas City, Mo. They know about changes, she says, but may be unprepared to encounter them.

Then there's old-fashioned procrastination. When Ipsos Public Affairs polled Americans between April 4 and 6 this year, 14 percent had not even begun preparing their taxes.

In what the Internal Revenue Service calls a major milestone, a majority of federal returns by individual taxpayers will arrive electronically this year. But observers doubt that heralds the end of an almost carnival-like rite of spring.

Last year in Santa Barbara, Calif., post office workers dragged mailboxes to the curb and turned them to face the street to facilitate late-night drive-bys.

"It was more jovial than anything," says Peter Sklar, who runs edhat.com, an online city guide. Drivers, some in pajamas, seemed to take pride in their late-game heroics, he says.

"They were laughing at themselves," says Mr. Sklar, who recalls a restaurateur walking down the line of cars, handing out coupons. "People were saying they'd just started [the paperwork] at four that afternoon."

What about his own state of affairs this year? Speaking from his cellphone atop a mountain at Heavenly Valley ski resort on the California-Nevada border, Sklar admits he has yet to begin. The data usually go to his accountant about now, he says, "and she files for an extension."

'Late' becomes 'in'

That's an increasingly popular option. About 3.5 percent of federal-tax filers used an extension in 1983, according to the IRS. In 2003 the figure passed 6.5 percent. In more than 8 million cases last year, an extension kept the IRS at bay.

Late filers don't ruffle Uncle Sam, though IRS officials note that extensions are meant to allow people more time for filing forms, not sending payments. Even if paperwork trails behind, filers should send an estimated payment by April 15, they urge.

Some citizens take lateness to its extreme. Nonfilers account for about $30 billion a year of lost federal revenue, says Nancy Mathis, an IRS spokeswoman.

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