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Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act by R. Scott Alagood

According to the U.S. Department of Defense records, through the end of 2012 there were approximately 1.4 million active duty U.S. Military servicemembers deployed throughout the world and the U.S. When you include the almost 2 million persons classified as dependents of such military personnel, there are approximately 3.4 million Americans who are directly affected by the military engagements in which the United States is and will be involved. Additionally, civilian contractors play major roles in conflicts involving the U.S. military.

Beginning with the first Soldier’s and Sailor’s Civil Relief Act of 1918, the Untied States has attempted to address certain hardships imposed on persons who are suddenly drafted or deployed into military conflicts. The most recent version of this attempt was codified at 50 U.S.C. App. Section 501-595 in 2003 (with changes effective in 2004), and also known as the Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act (the “Act”). The Act specifically states that its purpose “is to provide for, strengthen, and expedite the national defense through protection… to servicemembers of the United States to enable such persons to devote their entire energy to the defense needs of the Nation, … and to provide for the temporary suspension of judicial and administrative proceedings and transactions that may adversely affect the civil rights of servicemembers during their military service.”

The underpinnings of the Act try to balance the rights of the creditor and the servicemember by granting judicial discretion to delay the enforcement of remedies available to creditors or to allow the servicemember additional time to meet financial obligations. Members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Reserves (who are ordered to report for military service) are covered by the Act. Additionally, any U.S. citizen that serves with the armed forces of a nation that is allied with the U.S. in prosecuting a war or military action against a common enemy is also covered by the Act. Dependents (servicemember’s spouse, child, or a person for whom the servicemember provides more than one-half of the person’s support for 180 days) may apply for the protections of the Act in situations involving evictions, installment sales and lease contracts, mortgages, and residential and motor vehicle leases.

As a general rule, the Act affords it protections when the servicemember enters active military service and ends once that service is over or the servicemember dies during active military service. While an exhaustive list of the protections afforded by the Act cannot be set forth in this limited space, the following list represents the significant provisions of the Act which frequently come into play.

  • Default Judgments – Section 521
  • Prohibition of Fines and Penalties – Section 523
  • Stay of Execution of Judgments, Attachments and Garnishments – Section 524
  • Tolling of Statute of Limitations – Section 526
  • Maximum Rate of Interest Limited to 6% – Section 527
  • Evictions – Section 531
  • Installment Sales and Lease Contracts – Section 532
  • Mortgages and Deeds of Trust – Section 533
  • Termination of Residential or Motor Vehicle Leases – Section 535
  • Termination of Telephone Service Contracts – Section 535a
  • Enforcement of Storage Liens – Section 537
  • Taxes on Personal Property or Real Estate – Section 561
  • Deferral of Income Taxes – Section 570

The Act requires the Secretary of each armed service branch to ensure that all servicemembers are aware of their rights under the Act. Any questions about the Act can be directed to the appropriate Judge Advocate, Legal, or Family Member office associated with the particular branch of service. The appropriate office may be located by googling U.S. Armed Forces Legal Assistant Legal Services Locator or http//legalassistance.law.af.mil./content/locator.php. Interested parties may also want to check out the Military Sentinel website established by the Department of Defense and the Federal Trade Commission at http://ftc.gov/sentinel/miliary/ which advises servicemembers and their families on consumer protections afforded military personnel.

Creditors may check the status of a debtor’s military status through the official SCRA website at https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/apj/scra/. However, to receive accurate military status, the creditor will need to enter the debtor’s birth date and last four digits of the debtor’s social security number. If there is any question whether or not a party to any of the proceedings listed above may be in active military service or has only been recently discharged from such service (in some instances up to one year after discharge), it is extremely important that the provisions of the Act be reviewed prior to bringing action for enforcement of the creditor’s rights. In certain instances, fines or imprisonment can be imposed against a creditor who knowingly takes action against a protected service member in a manner not proscribed by the Act.

Scott Alagood is Board Certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in both Commercial and Residential Real Estate Law.