Soldiers and Sailors Act Provides Relief for Military
Recent events in the Middle East have resulted in the call-up of more than 3,400 Reserve and National Guard troops in Maryland alone. Aside from the obvious risks associated with fighting a war thousands of miles away, these men and women face unexpected financial and legal hardships as a result of their call to duty.
The Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act (SSCRA) was passed to alleviate some of those hardships. The current version of the Act, enacted in 1940 provides a special package of protection to any member of the uniformed services on active duty.
Although the current version is only 60 years old, its origins date to the Civil War, when Congress enacted an absolute moratorium on civil actions brought against federal troops. A soldier could not be forced to defend an action such as breach of contract foreclosure or divorce while on active duty. Such matters wee put on hold until the service member’s discharge. This allowed military personnel the ability co concentrate on the task at hand and recognized that low pay given to troops could pose a server hardship and handicap the ability to honor pre-service debts.
World War I witnessed the passage of the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 1918, which rather than create a complete moratorium on actions afforded some protections against repossession of property, bankruptcy and foreclosure, directed courts to take whatever action equity required when a service members was involved in a civil controversy.
The present version of the Act adopted many of the rights o the 1918 version, except that it does not provide for expiration on the cessation of hostilities. It was last amended during the 1991 Desert Storm operation . Some of the more important provisions of the act provide the following:
Termination of Pre-service Lease Agreements
A service member who is leasing property used for a dwelling or business may terminate a lease signed before the member entered active duty, provided the premises were occupied by the member or his dependents at the time of activation. Termination is not immediate or self-actuating and the Act provides for certain notification to be given to the landlord.
Protection Against Eviction
A service member may be protected from eviction under the SSCRA provided the rental property is occupied by the member or dependents for the purpose of housing, and the rent doe not exceed $1,200 per month. After receiving notice of eviction, the member or dependent must submit a request to the Court for protection under the Act. If the court finds that the member’s military duty has affected the ability to timely pay the rent, a court may order a stay or postponement of the action for up to 3 months and make other “just” orders.
If a service member’s military obligation has materially affected their ability to pay financial obligations (including credit cards, loans and mortgages) the member can have the interest rate capped at 6% for the duration of the time of service. (This applies only to debts incurred prior to active duty status and does not apply to federally guaranteed student loans). The act also provides the specific steps that must be taken to take advantage of this provision, including notification to the creditor to request the reduction.
Stay of Court Proceedings
A service member who is a Plaintiff or Defendant in a civil proceeding may request a stay or postponement of the proceeding. If a judgment is entered against a member who is unavailable for court due to military orders, the member may be able to later have that judgment voided. T his provision only applies to civil lawsuits, suits for paternity, child custody and bankruptcy debtor/creditor meetings. It does not apply to other types of proceedings such as administrative hearings, criminal proceedings and certain other circumstances.
Installment Contracts and Auto Leases
If the contract falls under the SSCRA, the creditor may be prohibited from exercising certain rights under the contract such as rescission, termination or repossession.
In summary, while the Act provides significant rights and protections, it does require affirmative action in many instances to take advantage of it. A service member would be well advised to contact their unit or installation legal office immediately in the event of any court proceedings against them.