The Legal Hiccups of Leap Year

  • distorted 2020 calendar on a tablet device

It is once again leap year, that magical, mystical time that adds an additional day to February every four years*. Though the practice of adding an extra day keeps "the calendar year synchronized with the astronomical year or seasonal year" (Wikipedia), it also has the potential to cause havoc in daily legal proceedings and practices.

For centuries, leap year has caused disruption within the legal community. A 1880 law review comment on current events (10 Cent. L.J. 158) makes note of the confusing practice, dating back as far as the thirteenth century, of combining February 28 and 29 as one day. The 1256 English statute asserted that "that Day, and the Day next going before, shall be accounted for one Day" (A Provision for the Day in Leap-Year (1256), 1 Statutes of the Realm, Hen. III 7). Though it was centuries old, the English statute was considered in force in some American states. But this had the great potential of disrupting many aspects of legal practice related to, as the law review comment notes, "counting days for commercial or other purposes", including earning a daily wage, loans and interest, and service of process, among others.

Legal questions and comments about leap year have continued in more recent years. A perusal of law review articles show how leap year can affect a myriad of legal issues, including problems calculating interest in arrears in Florida (Cynthia Hawkins DeBose & Jounice Nealy-Brown, The Silent Penalty: Interest Accrues on Unpaid Child Support in Florida, 40 Seton Hall Legis. J. 279, 288 (2015)), the amount of tax applied to cloud based movie rentals (William L. Fletcher, Jr., Netflix and Quill: Using Access and Consumption to Create a Plan for Taxing the Cloud, 58 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1029, 1055 (2017)), and what could happen when the terms "month" and "year" are not clearly defined in a contract (Preston M. Torbert, A Study of the Risks of Contract Ambiguity, 2 Peking U. Transnat'l L. Rev. 1, 51 (2014)).

But where do the states stand on leap year? While all 50 states mention leap year or February 29 at least once in either their state statutes or administrative regulations, the effect of these laws can vary widely between states. Take the expiration of driver's licenses, for example. If your license is set to expire on February 29 in Nevada (Nev. Admin. Code § 483.043(4)), the expiration date in a non-leap year will be February 28. But in Maine (Me. Stat. tit. 29-A, § 1406-A(3)) and Oregon (Or. Admin. R. 735-062-0007(8)), the expiration date will be March 1.

Many states have enacted statutes or regulations in an attempt to formalize the processes to follow during a leap year. Some states, like California (Cal. Gov. Code § 6803), Montana (Mont. Code Ann. § 1-1-303), New York (N.Y. Gen. Constr. Law § 58), and North Carolina (N.C. Gen.Stat. § 12-3(4)), have formalized the definition of "year" to detail how leap year is calculated. Other states touch on the topic as it is relevant. Many of these involve financial matters, like calculating interest in Delaware (Del.Code tit. 5, § 963), Kansas (Kan. Stat. § 16a-2-103(5)), and Maryland (Md. Code, Com. Law § 12-1003(b)(2)), or for specific tax purposes in New Jersey (N.J. Admin. Code § 18:35-1.3(e)(7)) and Oregon (Or. Admin. R. 150-316-0027(5)(b)).

For some states, the computation of time in a leap year is left up to caselaw. Several cases, both historic and recent, deal with this issue. Many of these opinions distinguish between computation of time when time is referred to as a "year", "half-year" or "month", and when time is counted in days. For example, a Texas criminal opinion from 1902 demonstrates how "a calendar month" as defined in a civil matter ("if it begins on the 5th of February during leap year, it would end on the 5th of March, although twenty–nine days elapse") differs from that in a criminal matter when punishment is delineated in days ("This cannot apply to a criminal statute, for the following reasons: The punishment in fixing its minimum and maximum, must be definite and inflexible." (McKinney v. State, 43 Tex.Crim. 387).

Despite centuries of wrestling with leap year, the legal community is no closer to coming to a consensus as it was during the reign of Henry III. In fact, that 1256 English statute was referenced in a 2013 dissenting opinion regarding the effect of leap year on a statute of limitations case. In its majority opinion, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that "even if the statute had yet to expire, an intervening leap year would not have added a day to the calculation; a year is a year with or without the added day" (Lane v. Spencer Mun. Hosp., 836 N.W.2d 666). The dissenting opinion by J. Tabor, however, argues that "Because the code defines a year as twelve consecutive months and a month as a calendar month, the two-year limitations period would translate into twenty-four consecutive calendar months." And in determining when "twenty-four consecutive calendar months" end, Tabor asserts you need to refer to common law, which references the English Statute of Leap Year. Because of this, "When we reckon February 28 and February 29 as a single day, the Lanes' filing was timely."

Want to explore more about how your state treats leap year? Try searching the statutes, administrative regulations, and caselaw for "leap year" OR "February 29". One point of note about this search - many of the statute and regulation results have to do with hunting and fishing seasons, including the Maine Monhegan Island Area Lobster Trap Regulation (13-188 Me. Code R. § 25.95(B)), mountain lion open season in Nebraska (163 Neb. Admin. Code § 037.02), and  commercial netting in Rhode Island (250-90 R.I. Code R. § 6.8.3(L)).

It may also be beneficial to take a look at American Jurisprudence (74 Am. Jur. 2d Time § 7: Year) and American Law Reports (5 A.L.R. 3d 584: "What 12-month period constitutes 'year' or 'calendar year' as used in public enactment, contract, or other written instrument"), both available on the library's Westlaw computers.

Need more help researching leap year? Ask us!

*Though leap year typically occurs every four years, this is not always true. There are rules to determine if a year is a leap year. From Wikipedia, "Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are."

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