Leaping Through Time – The Leap Year Enigma

By Lena J. Marderosian, Esq.

February is the shortest month of the year. But this year, thanks to 2020 being a Leap Year, we get to tack on an additional day to February so that the total number of days in the year is 366, not 365. This extra day is added every four years to account for the actual time it takes Earth to orbit the sun: 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds.

Why do we have Leap Years?

This practice first began in 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar—the famous Roman military general and father of the first son of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt—noticed that the Roman calendar had fallen behind 90 days and was, therefore, out of alignment with the seasons. With the help of Greek mathematicians and astronomers, he tried to correct the difference by adding days here and there to various months on the calendar for one year, and adding a leap day every four years thereafter. This became known as the Julian Calendar.

But the muddled math left 11 minutes a year unadjusted so that by 1582 A.D., the calendar had shifted 10 days and was misaligned with solstices and church festivals. Moreover, it did not properly reflect the actual time it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. As a result, Pope Gregory XIII decided that a tweaking of the calendar was due and eliminated some leap days. Thus, the year was shortened to 365 days, even though it takes the Earth 365.2422 days to make its actual trip around the sun. So, in order to account for those extra minutes and to keep our method of time in sync with the universe, it was decided to add the extra minutes into the day that comes around only every four years. This became known as a Leap Year. Since February was already a short month even back in 1582 A.D., the extra day was tacked on to the end of the month. This became the Gregorian Calendar—the calendar we still follow today.

But there are tricky rules regarding leap years that will make your head spin. Leap years occur every four years on years that are only divisible by 4. But that rule is subject to an exception: a leap year does not occur if the year is divisible by 100 (i.e. 1800, 1900, etc.), unless the year is also evenly divisible by 400. For example, the year 2000 was a leap year, but the years 1800 and 1900 were not. Without this complicated bit of arithmetic, adding a day every four years would be too much of a correction for the extra bit of time it takes for the Earth to travel around the sun.

Interesting Leap Year Facts:

  • Those who are born on February 29 are known as Leaplings, Leapsters or just plain Leapers.
  • The odds of being born on February 29 are 1 in 1,461, or 0.068%. It is actually rarer than being born with 11 fingers and toes.
  • Superman is said to be a Leapling.
  • There are two known families with three Leap Day children—a family in Norway in which all three kids were born on consecutive Leap Years, four years apart; and a family in Utah which also has three kids born on February 29th.
  • One family in Ireland has three generations of Leap Day babies: Father, son, and granddaughter.
  • Sir James Milne Wilson, a Premier of Tasmania, was born on February 29, 1812, and died on February 29, 1880, making him one of the only known people to both be born on and die on a Leap Day.
  • Historical leap years include: 1752, when Benjamin Franklin flew his kite, proving lightening is electricity; 1848, when gold was discovered in California; 1879, when General Custer fought the Battle of Little Bighorn; and 1912, when the Titanic sank.
  • Traditionally, a woman could ask a man to marry her on February 29th. But what if the guy said no? If she was turned down in Denmark, she would be given 12 pairs of gloves; if spurned in Finland, she was given material for a new skirt. If the proposal was rejected in Scotland, the man was fined and the government got the money!

Leap Year and the Law

Leap year birthdays can complicate things on official levels. When do Leaplings celebrate their birthday? In terms of parties and birthday dinners, the decision, of course, is up to them. Many, known as “strict Februarians,” choose to celebrate on February 28 as this is in the same month as their actual birthday. However, when it comes to legal matters—like being old enough to get a driver’s license or buy a car—it’s more complicated, and March 1 may be the better choice. Consider the following:

  • Drinking: If you are born on February 29, a day which usually occurs only once every four years, then your 21st birthday will not fall on a leap year. In the U.S. you must be 21 years old to legally drink. Since February 28 is not February 29, you cannot legally drink until after 11:59 pm on February 28. So technically, bouncers should not let 21-year-old leap year babies into bars until March 1.
  • Driver’s License: Leaplings often face problems with their driver’s licenses showing invalid expiration dates, such as Feb. 29, 2015, which was not a leap year. However, according to California’s Department of Motor Vehicle blog, “For a person born on February 29 with a driver’s license or ID that expires in a leap year, we’ll use the same date, February 29. If it expires in a regular year, we’ll use February 28 as the expiration date.” However, hospital and medical records, as well as life insurance policies, which use one’s birthdate as means for identification, do not always have such consistent rules to follow in determining a Leapling’s birthdate.
  • Social Security/Medicare: Leaplings need not worry—even though their birthday only comes once every four years, their benefits are not affected. The Social Security Administration doesn’t really care what day of the month you were born in, only the month and year. So even though a Leapling’s actual date of birth doesn’t come every year, the month certainly does, and the Social Security Administration counts February as the Birth Month in this situation.
  • Paychecks: Employers generally calculate the amount of a salaried employee’s paycheck by dividing that employee’s annual salary by the number of pay days per year. Thus, employers need to identify and address payroll leap years in advance or they may be stuck paying salaried employees an extra 3.7% over their intended annual salary. However, employers who pay employees on a monthly or twice monthly basis will never encounter a payroll leap year.
  • Other legal matters: Those of us in the legal field know that calculating deadlines is extremely important in many areas, including determining statutes of limitations, contractual computations, and even criminal sentencing. In fact, California Government Code §6803 defines a “year” as 365 days. As for the 366 days in a Leap Year, Section 6803 provides that the added day, and the day immediately preceding it, “shall be reckoned together as one day.”

An immigrant plaintiff named Jawid Habibi learned this the hard way. In Habibi v. Holder, Mr. Habibi was convicted of misdemeanor battery under California law and received a 365-day sentence to be served through the year 2000, a leap year. Habibi was then served with a notice of deportation by the Immigration Board because his conviction constituted an “aggravated felony” since he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of “at least one year.” Habibi challenged the notice, coming up with the creative argument that because his 365-day sentence was completed during a 366-day leap year, his term of imprisonment was a day short of “at least one year.” Thus, his conviction did not qualify as an “aggravated felony.” Unfortunately for him, the Court of Appeals rejected his argument and found that 365 days was the equivalent of one year.

Legal disputes and complications over leap years can arise in almost every aspect of everyday life, for both Leaplings and the rest of us born in “common” years. Whatever the challenges, there are also celebrations. So, if you are lucky enough to know any Leaplings, be sure to wish them a very special birthday this February 29th—the first chance in four years they can celebrate on the actual day on which they were born.


Lena MarderosianLena Marderosian, Esq. has over 35 years of litigation experience. She handles the defense of large, complex cases with catastrophic damages in both California State and United States District Courts. In addition to handling her own cases through trial, she also heads Bradley & Gmelich’s Law and Motion and Appellate Department. Ms. Marderosian has argued before the California Courts of Appeal in the Second Appellate District (Los Angeles and Ventura), Fourth Appellate District (Riverside and San Diego), and before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She is also admitted to the United States Supreme Court, in which she successfully opposed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in the matter of Evans v. AT&T Corporation, MCI Corp. and Pacific Bell, Case No. 00-1527, on behalf of two of the largest telecommunications companies in the country.