ARE YOU COVERED?
In general, the SCRA covers:
Active-duty members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Public Health Service and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Commissioned Officer Corps.
National Guard and reserve members activated for federal active duty.
Guardsmen called to active duty for more than 30 consecutive days in response to a national emergency declared by the president and supported by federal funds.
In many cases, family members of all of the above.
You may know that the Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act allows you to get your interest rate reduced to 6 percent on certain debts you incurred before active duty, and that it lets you vote and pay taxes in your home state if you're stationed somewhere else.
But the SCRA does a lot more for service members and their spouses. And after some recent alleged violations of troops' rights — such as big banks improperly foreclosing on service members' homes — many are confused about what the law does. The SCRA offers two basic types of protection: legal and financial. A rundown of the provisions you need to know:
1. Storage liens
The law: Anyone holding a lien on your property or effects — such as storage companies, repair shops or businesses that clean household goods or cars — can't foreclose on or enforce any lien without a court order.
Who it benefits: Those on active duty and reservists mobilized for active duty.
Time limits and other rules: Applies during the period of active duty and for 90 days after release from active duty.
Your responsibility: If a lien is being enforced without a court order, go to your legal assistance office.
The law: Property owned by an active-duty service member cannot — without a court order — be sold, foreclosed on or seized for breach of a pre-service, mortgage-type obligation.
Who it benefits: All service members.
Time limits and other rules: Protects during military service and for nine months afterward.
Your responsibility: Initially, it's up to creditors to check Defense Department information before taking such an action to ensure that a property owner is not on active duty. If a mortgage company attempts to foreclose without a court order, go straight to your legal assistance office.
3. Default court judgments
The law: A judge can't rule against you just because you fail to appear in court — a default judgment — in any civil action or proceeding, including child custody cases. Anyone who brings a civil court action or proceeding against you must file a sworn statement about whether you are in the military before a judgment can be entered. If you're active-duty military, the court must appoint an attorney to represent you.
Who it benefits: All service members.
Time limits and other rules: The court must stay (a delay) the proceedings for at least 90 days if the attorney requests it or if the court finds that there may be a defense that can't be presented without you there. Applies during military service and for 60 days after release from service.
Your responsibility: The initial responsibility is on the person bringing the court proceeding to make a sworn statement — and on the judge to enforce that requirement. If an improper judgment has been made against you, the court can set it aside. You can ask a court to reopen the case, but you must do so within 90 days after your release from active duty.
4. Court stays
The law: Courts must grant a stay of at least 90 days in any civil court action or proceeding, including child custody cases, provided you can show that your military service affects your ability to appear in court. The court also can adjust the obligation in a way that preserves the interests of both parties.
Who it benefits: Plaintiffs or defendants in the military who have received notice of the action or proceeding.
Time limits and other rules: You may apply for additional delays beyond the initial 90 days. If the court denies the requests, it must appoint an attorney to represent you in the proceedings.
Your responsibility: The court can grant the stay on its own. But if you apply for a stay, it must be granted for at least 90 days, if you provide:
• An explanation of why duty requirements affect your ability to appear and a date when you'll be available to appear.
• A letter or other communication from your commander stating that your military duty prevents you from appearing and that military leave is not authorized at the time of the letter.
5. Phone contracts
The law: You can terminate phone contracts early because of relocation or deployment.
Who it benefits: Service members who receive military orders to relocate for at least 90 days to a location that does not support their contract for cell phone or telephone service. For family plans, it applies to other family members if they accompany the service member during the period of relocation.
Time limits and other rules: Within 60 days after the effective date of the termination, the service provider must refund any advance payments. If you resubscribe to the service within 90 days after a relocation, the company can't charge for reinstating the service other than the usual charges for installation or equipment imposed on other subscribers.
Your responsibility: You must deliver written or electronic notice of the termination, the date when the service should be terminated and a copy of your military orders. The service provider can't impose an early termination charge, but you must pay any other charges that were due at the time of the termination.
The law: A landlord generally cannot evict you or your dependents without a court order.
Who it benefits: Service members or their dependents occupying premises primarily as a residence for which the monthly rent does not exceed $2,975.54 in 2011 (adjusted annually).
Time limits and other rules: If the service member requests a delay, the court must either delay eviction proceedings for 90 days or adjust the lease obligations to meet the needs of both parties.
Your responsibility: If someone attempts to evict you or your family without a court order, go to your installation's legal office for help.
Misconceptions: There is a common belief that this provision applies only to deployed troops; it applies to all active-duty members and their dependents.
The law: You and your spouse can vote in your home state in federal, state and local elections, even if you live in another state. For as long as you are in the military, moving on military orders does not require you to give up residence or domicile in your home state — even if you never intend to return to that state.
Who it benefits: All active-duty members and their spouses.
Time limits and other rules: Go to the Federal Voting Assistance Program website, www.fvap.gov, for local requirements in the area where you plan to vote.
Your responsibility: As soon as you move, check with the local election officials in your state of legal residence to make sure they have your correct address.
8. Income tax deferrals
The law: You can defer payment of federal and state income taxes for up to 180 days after release from active duty if your ability to pay is affected by your military service. No interest or penalties can accrue during the deferral period.
Who it benefits: Service members called to or on active duty who have income tax due before or during military service.
Time limits and other rules: A separate provision of the tax code also allows active-duty members who are deployed to defer payment for up to 180 days after deployment.
Your responsibility: You must notify the Internal Revenue Service or the tax authority of a state or local jurisdiction.
9. State and local taxes
The law: Your military pay, your spouse's income and your personal property are not subject to state and local taxation if you are living in the state solely because of military orders.
Who it benefits: All active-duty members and their spouses.
Time limits and other rules: Your spouse should follow tax requirements in the state where you're stationed in order to be exempt from taxes. Check with your legal assistance office.
Your responsibility: Your spouse should talk to her employer's human resources manager about tax withholdings.
Misconceptions: Some service members and spouses believe they don't have to pay taxes in any state. While a handful of states do not tax the income of military residents, most do.
10. Loan interest rates
The law: Creditors must limit interest rates to no more than 6 percent per year on debts you incurred before military service. You must ask for this rate reduction, which you're entitled to beginning on the date you receive orders to active duty. Interest in excess of 6 percent is forgiven, and you never have to repay it. The lender can't tack on the difference after you leave the service.
In the case of fixed payments such as mortgages, creditors must reduce the payment and cannot use the reduction as an excuse to accelerate payments on the loan principal.
Who it benefits: Active-duty service members whose debts were incurred before enlistment or commissioning into active service, and Guard and reserve members whose debts were incurred before being mobilized for active duty. It includes debts jointly incurred by a service member and spouse.
Time limits and other rules: You must request the interest rate reduction no later than 180 days after the date of your release from military service. You can even have the amount forgiven if you paid the higher rate the entire time you were in uniform. On mortgages, the 6 percent cap applies during the period of military service and for one year afterward; for all other debts, it applies during the period of military service.
Your responsibility: You must request the interest rate reduction as soon as possible by giving written notice and a copy of your military orders to creditors. Creditors may ask a court to waive the requirement to reduce interest rates if they can show that your ability to pay interest above 6 percent is not affected by your military service.
Misconceptions: Some active-duty members mistakenly think their interest rates are reduced during deployments even if the loans were taken out while they were on active duty. The law applies only to debt incurred before active duty.
11. Property leases
The law: You can terminate a residential or business lease early if you join the military, get permanent change-of-station orders or are required to deploy.
Who it benefits: Service members who enter the military after signing a lease for a residential, business, professional, agricultural or similar property. Also applies to those who sign a lease while in the service and later receive orders for a change of duty station or deployment of at least 90 days. For joint leases, this also applies to dependents; it terminates their obligations under the lease.
Time limits and other rules: When rent is due monthly, termination is effective 30 days after the date your next payment is due after notice is delivered. For other leases, termination is effective on the last day of the month following the month in which the notice is delivered.
Your responsibility: You or your spouse, as the tenants, must deliver written notice of the termination and a copy of your military orders to the landlord or landlord's agent.
12. Car leases
The law: You can terminate a motor vehicle lease early if you join the military, get permanent change-of-station orders or deploy.
Who it benefits: Service members leasing a motor vehicle for personal or business use by them or a dependent. You qualify if you meet one of the following requirements:
• Enter into active duty for at least 180 days.
• Receive orders for a permanent change-of-station move from a location in the continental U.S. to a location outside CONUS, or from a location in a state or territory to any location outside those states.
• Receive orders to deploy for at least 180 days.
Time limits and other rules: Termination is effective on the day all requirements are met.
Your responsibility: You must deliver a written notice of the termination and a copy of your military orders to the leasing company or company's agent, and return the motor vehicle no more than 15 days after delivery of the written notice.
13. Rental or purchase contracts
The law: Creditors can't terminate installment contracts entered into before active duty for any type of property, from furniture to motor vehicle leases or purchases, without a court order. And they can't repossess the property for nonpayment or terminate the contract before or during the period of your military service without a court order.
Who it benefits: Active-duty members and activated Guard and reserve members who made an installment or deposit on a contract before entering active duty.
Time limits and other rules: No time limit specified under the law.
Your responsibility: If a creditor tries to repossess an item without a court order, consult your installation's legal assistance office.