A federal law called the "Servicemembers Civil Relief Act" (SCRA) (50 U.S.C. § 3901 and following) helps military servicemembers handle their legal affairs and reduce financial obligations while on active duty. The law aims to allow those in the military to serve without suffering financial or legal repercussions at home.
Below we discuss the following benefits provided by this law:
The SCRA applies to all full-time active duty members of the five military branches (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard), reservists on federal active duty, members of the National Guard on federal orders for a period of more than 30 days, and commissioned officers of the Public Health Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Servicemembers are also covered when absent from duty because of sickness, wounds, leave, or another lawful cause. In some situations, dependents of servicemembers are also entitled to protections under the SCRA.
However, the SCRA doesn't apply to Reserve or National Guard members who aren't on active duty, retired military personnel, or National Guard troops called to duty under state orders. But some states provide protections similar to the SCRA for National Guard members and reservists called up to active duty under state orders.
Under the SCRA, many active-duty personnel are entitled to a 6% interest rate cap on debts or financial obligations of any kind (except federal student loans that originated before August 14, 2008) during the period of military service. For mortgage loans, the coverage is the same period, plus one year. Interest over 6% per year is forgiven.
To be eligible for the reduced rate, you must have taken out the loan before you began active duty.
Many active duty servicemembers might also be able to terminate lease obligations and avoid eviction.
Tenants who enter active military service after signing a lease or rental agreement have a right to terminate their rental obligations. Both residential and commercial (business) leases are covered under the SCRA.
You must hand deliver, send via private carrier, mail, or electronically send a written notice of your intent to terminate your tenancy, along with a copy of your orders, to the landlord or manager.
A landlord may not evict a servicemember, or the servicemember's dependents, from a residential home during a period of military service without first getting a court order. Also, the SCRA requires courts to postpone (stay) some residential evictions for nonpayment of rent for up to 90 days or longer.
Which tenants are affected? The SCRA applies if your spouse, children, or other dependents occupy the rental unit during a period of military service. (A dependent is someone you've supported in the past 180 days, paying more than half of that person's living expenses.)
Rental amount. The Act's protections apply when the rent is $9,106.46 (2023) monthly or less. The figure is adjusted yearly to account for inflation or cost of living increases.
The effect on an eviction lawsuit. The SCRA doesn't prevent a landlord from serving a termination notice for the nonpayment of rent. But a landlord who has filed suit must tell the court that the tenant is an active service person—so be sure to notify your landlord when you are activated. The judge will decide whether the service person's status in the military materially affects the ability to pay the rent. If the judge determines that it does, the judge may stay (postpone) the eviction. If the judge decides otherwise, the lawsuit will continue and could result in an eviction.
The SCRA also protects active duty servicemembers from some court judgments and repossessions.
The SCRA allows active service persons to ask for a stay of many kinds of civil actions in which the service person is a defendant. In addition, when calculating the statute of limitations (the time during when a person must bring a lawsuit, or lose the right to do so), the time that the person has been in the military isn't counted.
If you've received notice of a civil proceeding, you can usually delay the action for some time, not less than 90 days, so long as you meet specific criteria and if you request it from the court in writing.
A lender may not foreclose on, seize, or sell the homes of military personnel during active duty or up to one year thereafter unless the foreclosure is pursuant to a court order or a waiver by the servicemember. To be eligible for this protection against foreclosure, you must have taken the mortgage out before you began active duty.
In a judicial foreclosure, you can usually delay the action for a period of time as justice and equity require if you meet specific criteria and if you ask the court for the stay in writing.
A "default judgment" occurs when you're sued and fail to respond to the suit, and the judge rules against you.
Plaintiff must notify the judge that you're on active duty. Under the SCRA, a plaintiff (the person that brings a lawsuit) who seeks a default judgment against an absent active duty servicemember must notify the court that the service person is on active duty. If neither the servicemember nor the servicemember's attorney appears in court, the court may not enter a judgment until after the court appoints an attorney to represent the defendant. If an attorney appointed to represent a servicemember can't locate the servicemember, the actions by the attorney in the case don't waive any defense of the servicemember or otherwise bind the servicemember.
Once a court appoints an attorney to represent the servicemember, that attorney will often seek a stay of proceedings. If requested by the attorney (or upon the court's own motion), a court will grant a stay of proceedings for a minimum of 90 days if there might be a defense and the defense can't be presented without the servicemember's presence, or after due diligence, the servicemember's attorney hasn't been able to contact the servicemember or otherwise determine if a meritorious defense exists.
You might be able to reopen the case later. If a court enters a default judgment against a servicemember during the servicemember's period of military service (or within 60 days after termination of or release from such military service), the court entering the judgment must, upon application by or on behalf of the servicemember, reopen the judgment for the purpose of allowing the servicemember to defend the action if it appears that the servicemember:
The SCRA prohibits repossessions performed without a court order, such as those done by merchants or "repo" specialists, of goods purchased by installment contract, like consumer items or cars, as long as the purchase was made before active duty began.
If you're on active duty, the merchant must get a court order before it can repossess an item. Once in court, an active-duty servicemember may apply for a stay of repossession proceedings. The judge will grant the stay if the service person's ability to pay the debt has been materially affected by entering active service, in the judge's view.
In addition to federal law, many states have their own statutes that provide protections for servicemembers in certain legal situations.
Many protections under the SCRA aren't automatic, which means a servicemember must request the protection. How you must invoke a protection, how long you get to invoke that protection, and what you must do to demonstrate that you qualify for a particular protection under the SCRA varies.
If you're having financial difficulties and need help invoking your rights under the SCRA, consider talking to a HUD-approved foreclosure counselor (if facing foreclosure), military defense counsel (a military attorney independent from the standard chain of command specially designated to represent servicemembers confidentially), or a civilian attorney with extensive experience in military law.
Because financial difficulties can sometimes impact a military servicemember's security clearance or result in disciplinary or adverse administrative action, servicemembers should generally avoid initially contacting their base legal office. Military defense counsel or a civilian attorney can provide confidentiality that can be critically important to maintaining a servicemember's career.
Also, if you're facing foreclosure during or after active military duty, consider contacting your mortgage servicer (the company you make your payments to) immediately and ask about foreclosure avoidance options. Most lenders offer various options to borrowers who can't make their mortgage payments, like mortgage modifications, forbearance agreements, and repayment plans.