The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides for, strengthens, and expedites the national defense by protecting military members and spouses.50 United States Code
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is a federal law that provides a wide range of valuable civil protections to servicemembers and spouses. The law was enacted to protect servicemembers and spouses from being legally disadvantaged due to the unique nature of military service and frequent moves and deployments. The SCRA does not, however, provide protections for criminal matters.
Congress first enacted protections for servicemembers by passing the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act (SSCRA) in 1940. The Act provided numerous protections to servicemembers, including staying civil court hearings, reducing interest rates, and allowing servicemembers to maintain their state of residence for tax purposes despite being stationed in other states. The SSCRA remained mainly unchanged until December 2003, when President George W. Bush signed the SCRA into law. The SCRA includes significant revisions to the original SSCRA which better protect the interests of servicemembers and spouses.
Main Protections Under the SCRA
Right to Stay (Postpone) Civil Court Proceedings
A servicemember has the right to stay (postpone) civil court hearings and administrative hearings. This is a critical right because normally if a party to a dispute does not appear in court a default judgement will be granted to the opposing party. A servicemember must request a stay in the proceedings by showing that ongoing military service prevents him or her from appearing at the time of the hearing and by having the servicemember’s commander send a letter to the court. Once this is completed, the judge will order a ninety (90) day delay. It is possible to obtain additional delays after the first ninety days depending on your non-availability, so it is important to keep in close contact with the court.
Six Percent (6%) Interest Cap
A significant benefit of the SCRA is the requirement that creditors reduce to six percent (6%) the interest rate of loans or other financial obligations incurred prior to the servicemembers entry onto active duty. Upon entry onto active duty, servicemembers must submit a written request, including military orders, which states that the ability to pay the higher interest rate is “materially affected by the military service.” The creditor is then required to adjust the interest rate to six percent (6%). A key for servicemembers and spouses is that the interest rate cut must be forgiven, not deferred. That means you do not have to pay the money back!
Right to Terminate Rental Lease
Servicemembers have the right to terminate rental leases provided they have received military assignment orders to geographically relocate or are being deployed for ninety (90) days or more. Servicemembers must provide landlords with written notice and a copy of their orders. The termination is effective thirty (30) days after the first date on which the next rental payment is due. This SCRA provision has effectively eliminated the need for military clauses in leases.
Right to Terminate Auto Leases
Automobile leases originating before active duty service may be terminated if the servicemember receives active duty orders for one hundred and eighty (180) days or more. Automobile leases entered into while on active duty may be cancelled if the servicemember receives assignment orders for outside the continental United States or deployment orders for a period of one hundred and eighty (180) days or more. Servicemembers must provide written notice and a copy of their orders to the leaseholder. Termination is effective upon return of the vehicle which must occur no later than fifteen (15) days after the termination notice date.
Right to Terminate Cell Phone Contracts
The SCRA allows servicemembers to cancel a cell phone contract when he or she receives deployment orders outside the continental United States for ninety (90) days or more or when reassigned to a location that has no coverage by the cell phone carrier. The request must be in writing and it must note that the servicemember’s ability to utilize the cell phone service is materially affected by the deployment or reassignment.
Military Spouses Residence for Tax Purposes
The Military Spouses’ Residency Relief Act previously provided benefits to military spouses who were legal residents of, or domiciled in, the same state as the servicemember, known as the same-state rule. Today, the same-state rule remains; however, spouses are now permitted to simply elect to have the same residence for state and local tax purposes as the servicemember.
Creditors are prohibited from reporting servicemembers’ and spouses’ reliance on the SCRA’s protections as negative information to credit reporting agencies.
Waiver of Rights
A servicemember may waive any or all SCRA rights. This, however, is never recommended. It is crucial that servicemembers and spouses carefully read contracts and have them reviewed by the closest legal assistance office (discussed in the next paragraph) before signing to protect your rights.
Act Fast if You Believe the SCRA Applies to You
If you believe the SCRA protections apply to you, contact the closest legal assistance office to schedule an appointment. Use the Armed Forces Legal Assistance website to locate your nearest legal assistance office.
Be on the lookout for future blogs that will continue to discuss specific legal issues often encountered by servicemembers and military spouses. As always, this blog series will help to protect your family and you!
Kerry L. Erisman is a military spouse, Dad of two awesome teenage boys, Army retiree after 28 years of active duty service, attorney, and Associate Professor with American Military University. He writes and teaches on important military spouse issues including leadership, critical thinking, and education. This blog is the third in a monthly series designed to inform military spouses of timely legal issues that may affect them and where to turn for assistance.