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Military and Veterans
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act: Legal Protections for Armed Forces Members on Active Duty

What is the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act?

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is a federal law that provides special legal protections and help to members of the Armed Forces who are on active duty. Congress passed the law so that legal actions may be put on hold for servicemembers during military service. SCRA only applies to civil legal matters—not criminal matters.

Who is considered a servicemember?

A servicemember is a member of any of the following: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, National Guard, Coast Guard, the Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service. SCRA applies to servicemembers in all 50 states and all U.S. territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Marianas Islands).

When does SCRA apply?

SCRA does not apply automatically—a person must be on active duty or deployed, and must request the protections of SCRA in order to benefit from its protections. Active duty includes annual training duty.

If a person is on active duty, the SCRA protections usually begin the first date of active duty and end on the last day of the active duty period. However, they may be extended from 30 to 180 days beyond the last day of active duty.

What protection and assistance does SCRA offer to servicemembers?

The main protection SCRA offers is that it stops (the legal term is stays) lawsuits—primarily divorces. Many people think that SCRA protects servicemembers from being sued. SCRA does not keep servicemembers from being sued or from being a witness in a legal proceeding. SCRA also provides the following protections.

LAWSUIT PROTECTIONS

Preventing default judgments against servicemembers: A default judgment is a judgment that is entered against a person (the defendant) who has failed to defend him- or herself in a lawsuit. Because a servicemember may have good reasons for not appearing and defending him- or herself in a lawsuit while on active duty, SCRA requires the plaintiff (the person filing the suit) to file a document called an affidavit, stating whether or not the defendant is in the service. The court cannot enter a default judgment until it receives that affidavit. If the defendant is in military service, the court must appoint an attorney to represent the defendant before entering a default judgment against him or her. Also, the defendant must have notice of (know about) the lawsuit in order to get the protection of SCRA.

Stopping civil court or administrative proceedings against servicemembers: SCRA permits a servicemember to stay (stop or delay) a legal action if the court determines that:

  • The servicemember might have a defense to the action,
  • The servicemember cannot defend him- or herself without being present, and
  • The servicemember has honestly tried to appear in court but cannot. (If a court determines that a servicemember could have appeared but does not try to appear, this is an example of acting in bad faith. If a court finds that a servicemember has acted in bad faith, it will not grant a stay of the legal action.)

The servicemember must make this request in writing while on a tour of military service, or within 90 days after termination of or release from military service, by sending:

  • A letter or other type of communication explaining the servicemember’s military duties and the need for a stay;
  • A starting date when the servicemember will be able to appear; and
  • A letter from the servicemember’s commanding officer, supporting his or her request for a stay.

If a request for a stay is denied, the servicemember cannot then invoke the protections of SCRA to try to set aside the default judgment.

In New Jersey, lawsuits in the family division of the Superior Court may continue, but the family division works with servicemembers by allowing them to testify by telephone during periods of authorized leave. This way, the servicemember is protected and the other members of the family are allowed to continue to seek relief in family court.

Giving servicemembers more time to bring lawsuits: There are rules for how and when different types of civil lawsuits may be filed. For example, a personal injury lawsuit must be filed within two years of the date of the discovery of the injury. However, SCRA requires that the “clock” stop for servicemembers on active duty.

INSURANCE PROTECTIONS

Suspending life insurance payments: Under SCRA, servicemembers may stop payment of life insurance premiums during active duty. SCRA also requires that commercial life insurance coverage continue during the period of military service and for two years thereafter.

Reinstatement of health insurance after period of active duty is completed: SCRA requires that civilian health insurance be reinstated when servicemembers return home after active duty.

Preventing increases in professional liability insurance premiums: Under SCRA, professional liability insurance may be suspended for servicemembers during a period of active duty, and insurance providers may not increase premiums when the insurance is reinstated.

DEBT PROTECTIONS

Garnishment of pay: In certain situations, a servicemember may be able to avoid having his or her pay garnished. This is especially true if he or she is able to show that there was an absence from a judicial proceeding as a result of military assignment or essential military duty.

Interest rate on credit card or other debt: A servicemember may reduce to 6% the higher interest rate he or she pays for any financial obligation (credit card, loan, and mortgage) individually or jointly entered into before active service, if active service materially affects the servicemember’s ability to repay the financial obligation. This reduced interest rate is effective only during the period of active military duty.

This reduced rate does not apply to financial obligations entered into while in active service, federally guaranteed student loans, refinancing, or credit card balance increases.

Installment contracts: An installment contract is an agreement to pay for goods or services over time in multiple payments. A servicemember who enters into an installment contract before beginning active duty to purchase real or personal property, including a car, is protected under SCRA from making payments if:

  • The servicemember has paid a deposit or installment before entering into active duty, and
  • Military service “materially affects” the servicemember’s ability to make payments. A court may compare a servicemember’s financial condition before and during active duty to determine if he or she qualifies.

If the servicemember meets those conditions, the seller may not end the contract, take possession of the property for nonpayment, or break the terms of the contract. Only a court can give the seller permission to repossess the property or end the contract.

LEASE AND MORTGAGE PROTECTIONS

Leased vehicles: SCRA allows a servicemember to terminate a car lease signed either before or during active duty if, after agreeing to the terms of a lease, he or she:

  • Receives orders for a permanent change of station to a location outside the continental U.S., or
  • Is deployed for 180 days or more.

Preventing eviction: Under SCRA, a landlord may not evict a servicemember on active status, or his or her dependents, from their primary residence without a court order. However, in New Jersey, the Anti-Eviction Act already provides this protection for all tenants—so SCRA is not as important here as it is in other states. Once in court, SCRA permits the court to stay proceedings or adjust obligations in applications for eviction.

Ending a residential lease: SCRA permits servicemembers to terminate a residential lease of property that is occupied, or intended to be occupied, by a servicemember or his or her dependents.

Paying a mortgage: If a servicemember entered into a mortgage before the period of military service began and still owes money on that mortgage, then the court may stay proceedings to enforce that mortgage obligation.

HELP WITH PAYING TAXES

SCRA may defer collection of taxes (but not filing of tax returns) for up to 180 days after termination of or release from military service, if the servicemember’s ability to pay that tax is materially affected by military service.

VOTING RIGHTS

SCRA protects a servicemember’s right to vote in elections in his or her home state.

DRIVER’S LICENSES

A servicemember who has registered and licensed his or her vehicle in his or her home state is not required to license and register the vehicle in the host state where he or she is stationed.

Legal Services of New Jersey's Veterans Legal Assistance Project

For additional information about SCRA and other legal rights for veterans, contact the Veterans Legal Assistance Project at Legal Services of New Jersey by calling LSNJLAWSM, LSNJ’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888- LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529). Hotline hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ​​​​​​​​​

5/25/2018