I love a good leap year. The extra day is kind of like finding a dollar bill in your pocket. You always had it there but having remembered it, it feels like a bonus.

It also tends to have the unfortunate consequence of wreaking havoc in the schedules of folks who count on the calendar to flip from February 28 to March 1 each year. That won’t happen for 2012: the leap year means that February 29 is making a rare appearance. And that’s causing a bit of confusion in the tax world.

For 2012, the form 1099 series is due to the IRS on a different date from the Form W-2 series. For the past three years – and indeed, 75% of the time, they are due on the same date each year. This is because the instructions for the respective forms reflect a February 28 due date for the 1099 series but a “last day of February” deadline for the W-2 series. As this is a leap year, the last day of February is February 29, not February 28, thus resulting in a difference.

It’s causing tax professionals and small businesses to wonder, as with this tweet:

What’s the scoop on 1099 deadline? Is it tomorrow or the end of Feb? http://www.tax.gov/calendar/ IRS says tomorrow but W2/3 Wed. #odd

The official instructions indicate that most of the form 1099 series (including 1099-DIV, 1099-INT, and 1099 MISC) are due to the IRS on February 28, 2012. Four copies of those forms are usually made: one for the payer, one for the payee (generally due by the end of January), one for the IRS, and one for the state tax department if required.

Similarly, a form 1098, Mortgage Interest Statement; a form 3921, Exercise of an Incentive Stock Option Under Section 422(b), and form 3922, Transfer of Stock Acquired Through an Employee Stock Purchase Plan Under Section 423(c), are also due to the IRS on February 28. Copies are also due to the respective recipients by January 31, 2012.

In contrast, forms W-2 are due to the Social Security Administration on February 29, 2012. One part is retained by the employer, one part is provided to the employee (generally on or before January 31), one part is sent along with a Form W-3 to the Social Security Administration and one part is sent to the applicable state/local tax departments if required. The Social Security Administration coordinates the exchange of information with the IRS.

Confusing, right?

I know what you’re thinking: it’s just one day. But one day can be very significant when penalties are at stake.

So why not just file early and cover your bases? Let me let you in on a little secret: tax preparers are super busy this time of year. By the numbers, 60% of the work performed by most tax accountants during the year is related to filing income tax returns, according to a survey conducted by the National Society of Accountants (NSA) of nearly 8,000 tax preparers. For 2012, most of that is compressed into a window between January 17 and April 17: just three months. It’s a huge amount of work to push through in a relatively short amount of time. Every day counts. Every deadline matters. To be able to push off a deadline a day or so more – like Tax Day this year falling on April 17 – gives a tax preparer (not to mention the client) extra breathing room.

I contacted the IRS to ask them about the differences and whether there might be some relief for any penalties related to the confusion and late filings. I haven’t yet heard back – but I’ll let you know the answers when I find out.

In the meantime, read those instructions, carefully, folks. You never know when a deadline – or something more serious – could turn on a simple choice of words.

(H/T @CPAJeff for tweeting me in the first place)

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Kelly Erb is a tax attorney, tax writer and podcaster.

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