New law benefits servicemembers, offers protection

Army Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample
American Forces Press Service

A new law replacing the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act of 1940 provides servicemembers greater protections to handle personal financial and legal obligations, officials said.

President Bush signed the Service Members’ Civil Relief Act into law Dec. 19.

“The focus of the (new act) is the same as under the SSCRA: To provide protections to servicemembers who have difficulty meeting their personal financial and legal obligations because of their military service,” said Lt. Col. Patrick Lindemann, deputy director for legal policy in the office of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

This is significant, because it clarifies and updates SSCRA provisions and adds some protections.

“Servicemembers on long-term deployments, or called to active duty, should not have to worry about their families in their absence being evicted from their quarters without sufficient legal protections, or that they are paying on a leased car or apartment that they can’t use, or about civil legal proceedings they can’t attend because of their deployment,” he said.

“These are some of the situations the SCRA covers so that servicemembers are able to devote their energies to the military mission and the defense needs of the nation, and not on civil matters waiting for them at home,” he said.

An automatic 90-day stay of civil proceedings upon application by the servicemember is what Colonel Lindemann called “a significant change” in the new act. This applies to all judicial and administrative hearings. Previously, stays were discretionary with the courts.

The new relief act also makes it clear the 6-percent limitation on interest rates for pre-service debts requires a reduction in monthly payments, and any interest in excess of 6 percent is forgiven, not deferred, Colonel Lindemann said.

The SCRA also expanded the protection against eviction. Under the SSCRA, servicemembers and their family who entered into a lease for $1,200 or less could not be evicted without a court order.

This amount is increased to $2,400 and added an annual inflation adjustment. For 2004, the maximum will be $2,465, significantly increasing the number of servicemembers entitled to this protection, Colonel Lindemann said.

The new relief act also gives the servicemember who has received permanent change-of-station orders or who is being deployed for 90 days or more the right to terminate a housing lease with 30 days’ written notice. Before, servicemembers could be required to pay for housing they were unable to occupy.

One of the more significant new provisions is an added protection for motor-vehicle leases. Any active-duty servicemember who has received PCS orders outside the continental United States, or who is being deployed for 180 days or more, may terminate a motor-vehicle lease. The law prohibits early termination charges.

“Now, servicemembers won’t have to pay monthly lease payments for a car they can’t use,” Colonel Lindemann said.

“Servicemembers may not always realize all the protections they have under the law,” Colonel Lindemann said.

“If servicemembers have questions about the SCRA or the protections that they may be entitled to, they should contact their unit judge advocate or installation legal assistance officer for further assistance.”