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Tax deadline: Why you get until April 17 this year to file your return

The tax deadline for filing 2011 federal income tax returns comes two days later than usual. For this, last-minute filers have President Lincoln to thank. 

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Tax payers search through tax forms at the Illinois Department of Revenue in Springfield, Ill., in this April 15, 2010 file photo. This year taxpayers have two extra days to file their returns.

Seth Perlman/AP/File

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Happy Emancipation Day, everybody.

Thanks to an unusual holiday in the nation's capital city, celebrating the end of slavery there in 1862, taxpayers across America have been liberated from the tax man for an extra day.

You have until April 17 to file your federal tax returns, or to apply for an extension. Typically the deadline each year is April 15.

Here's why things are different this year: April 15 came on a Sunday, with no mail pickup by the US Postal Service. Then comes April 16, which is Emancipation Day in the District of Columbia. The district's celebration doesn't make it a federal holiday, but the Internal Revenue Service says that "according to federal law, District of Columbia holidays impact tax deadlines in the same way that federal holidays do."

The result: taxpayers have two extra days. But if you're requesting an extension, the IRS says you'll have to file your return by Oct. 15 (not until Oct. 17).

Of course, millions of Americans have already filed their taxes, to get refunds as quickly as possible – or just because they don't like to wait until the last possible moment. In all, the IRS expects to receive some 144 million tax returns this year.

Remember that, even if you file for an extension, the IRS still expects you to pay any money you owe by the April 17 deadline. You can file electronically, via the IRS "Free File" system or through downloaded tax software. If you can't pay the full bill on time, some alternative steps are listed in a separate story on last-minute filing tips.

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