What Is the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)?

SCRA protections begin when you start your active duty service. They typically end when you leave active military service. However, some extend for a short period afterward (but no longer than a year).

There are significant changes to your life when you join active duty military service. The federal government created the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) to ease the burden of this adjustment period. The SCRA helps service members and their families transition from civilian life to full-time military service. In addition, it provides certain ongoing protections and benefits during their military service.

Purpose and Overview of the SCRA

The purpose of the SCRA (50 U.S.C. App. §§ 3901-4044) is to assist active duty military members to “devote their entire energy to the defense needs of the Nation." The law was initially called the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act (SSCRA), enacted in 1940 before the United States entered WWII. Over the past several decades, it has been expanded.

Major Benefits and Protections

The SCRA has been updated several times since it was first made law. This article provides a general overview of the protections and benefits the SCRA may give you and your family. Not all apply at all points of your military career, but several do. 

The SCRA provides military members (and sometimes their family members) the following:

  • Protection from foreclosure on pre-service mortgages
  • Early cancellation of leases and contracts
  • Protection from eviction
  • 6% cap on interest rates for pre-service debts
  • Stay of civil court proceedings
  • Reopening default judgments
  • Health insurance and life insurance reinstatement/protections
  • Professional license portability from state to state
  • Military spouse tax jurisdiction flexibility

Who Do SCRA Protections Apply To?

The SCRA applies to the following people:

  • Active duty service members in the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, and Space Force
  • Reservists on active federal service (SCRA will apply to the Reserves when they are conducting annual training on title 10 order, but not during monthly battle assembly weekends)
  • Members of the National Guard mobilized under federal orders by the President or Secretary of Defense for more than 30 days
  • Active duty commissioned officers of the Public Health Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Dependents of active duty service members (sometimes)
  • Citizens of the U.S. serving with military forces of a nation that the United States allies in “the prosecution of a war or military action"

When Do SCRA Protections Apply?

Certain SCRA protections for reserves and draftees (aka inductees) start the day they receive orders, not the day they start service. For example, if a reserve Soldier receives military orders on October 1st to report to active service on November 15th, SCRA protections begin on October 1st. (The U.S. military has not had a draft since the 1970s.)

SCRA Protections and Benefits

The SCRA provides substantial protections and benefits to those covered by the statute. They are designed to make life easier for those serving our country. The following describes those protections and benefits.

Protection From Foreclosure on Pre-Service Mortgages

If you (or you and your spouse jointly) purchased a piece of property before joining active duty military service, it cannot be seized or foreclosed on without a court order.

The court may, on its own (or will if you request), issue a stay of proceedings on the foreclosure if it determines your military service materially affects your ability to comply with your mortgage obligations. This protection applies for up to one year after leaving active duty military service.

Early Cancellation of Leases and Contracts

In some situations, the SCRA allows military members to cancel residential leases, car leases, and installment contracts (like cell phone and cable contracts) early. The SCRA applies these benefits to the dependents named jointly on a lease or contract. For instance, if you and your spouse are both named on your home rental lease, or if you and your teenager are listed on your cell phone contract, the SCRA rules cover them also.

Residential Leases

If you have a residential lease, you can cancel your contract when you join the military service if:

  • You receive military orders for 90+ days for a permanent change of stations (PCS)
  • You are deployed to support a military operation for 90+ days

These rules apply to professional, business, and agricultural premises leases as well. 

Under the SCRA, you can break your rental agreement with a copy of your orders or a letter from your commanding officer. Breaking the lease will be effective 30 days after you notify your landlord in writing. For instance, if your rent is due on the 15th of every month, you cannot avoid paying that month by notifying your landlord the day before on the 14th. You will still be obligated to fulfill your contractual obligations for 30 more days.

Automobile Leases

If you have an automobile lease, you can cancel your contract when you join the military service or if you receive orders for 180+ days for the following situations:

  • A PCS from the continental United States (CONUS) to a location outside the continental United States (OCONUS)
  • A PCS from a location in an OCONUS State to any area outside that State
  • Deployment to support a military operation for 180+ days

Phone Contracts

If you have a phone/cell lease, you can cancel your contract when you receive military orders to relocate for 90+ days to a location that does not support the agreement.

If you cancel your phone contract based on relocation or a PCS of three years or less, you can keep your cell phone number so long as you re-subscribe to the cell phone service within 90 days of returning from your relocation. For example, if you are stationed in North Carolina and get a one-year deployment to Afghanistan, you may cancel your cell phone lease but maintain your cell phone number so long as you resume service within 90 days of the end of your deployment.

Protection from Eviction

If your rent is below a certain amount, landlords cannot evict service members from their primary residence during military service unless the landlord has a court order. In 2023, this protection applies to monthly rents below $9,106.46 (the amount changes annually, based on inflation).

If your landlord does file for eviction in the court system, you (or your dependent spouse) can tell the court you are active duty military and request up to a 90-day stay of proceedings if you are materially affected by your military service. A stay of proceedings in civil court is another way of saying that a case is paused. The court can also “adjust the obligation under the lease to preserve the interests of all parties" (for example, change the amount of the rent).

These protections apply to service members' dependents also.

6% Cap on Interest Rates for Pre-Service Debts

Service members can request that debts incurred before joining active duty military service have their interest rates reduced to 6%. This is especially helpful to service members who were victims of predatory lending before joining the armed forces. This section of the SCRA applies to credit cards, mortgages, and, starting in April 2008, federally guaranteed student loans. It also applies to pre-service debts jointly owned by the service member and spouse.

Creditors cannot use this request against you in the future or add the interest back to your account after you get out of the military.

In addition to serving on active duty and the debt occurring before entering active duty, to get a reduction of interest rates to 6% your military service must significantly impact (“materially affect") your ability to make payments. While many creditors may not ask you to prove this prong of the test, they are entitled to under the law. Creditors can also ask the civilian courts to rule that they do not have to comply with this protection if they do not believe you are materially affected in making payments with an interest rate over 6%.

This rule does not apply to debts accumulated after joining active military service. Another law, the Military Lending Act, covers debts incurred after joining the military.

Stay of Civil Court Proceedings

One primary protection the SCRA provides is a stay of judicial proceedings. This ensures that a service member's geographic absence due to military service cannot be used against them in a civil court case. It is important to remember these rules apply only to civil actions and do not apply to criminal cases.

Under the SCRA, if you fail to appear as an active-duty military member in civil court, the court (judge) cannot make a default judgment in your absence. Instead, the court must issue a stay of proceedings. A stay of proceedings in civil court is another way of saying that a case is paused. The court then appoints legal counsel on behalf of the service member named as a defendant to search for and notify them about the case.

A civil court must grant a stay of proceedings for at least 90 days if appointed legal counsel or the court itself requests and the court determines:

  • There might be a defense to the legal action, and it can only be presented to the court if you, as the defendant, are there in person, or
  • The appointed legal counsel is unable to contact you, the service member, or determine if a “meritorious" defense case exists

A court can also grant a stay of proceeding in a civil case if the service member does know about a civil case and requests a stay, and:

  • Is in active military service (or 90 days or less after leaving the military)
  • Received notice of the action or proceeding

These rules apply to child custody cases and other civil cases.

In deciding if and how long to grant a stay of proceedings, the judge/court must determine if your military service “materially affects" your ability to appear in court. Your application will require specific reasons why your military services interfere with your ability to appear in court and a letter from your commander. You should not expect a stay of proceedings to be granted indefinitely for the entire term of your military service.

For example, say your wife attempts to amend your child custody rights. At the same time, you are attending Army Ranger School, a very regimented 61-day course where you will spend most of the time living outside in austere conditions, and leave (time off) is not authorized. You can request a stay of proceedings until you complete Ranger School and have a chance to consult with your attorney. You should not expect the court to grant a stay of proceedings lasting the entire four years of your enlistment contract.

Reopening Default Judgments

Under the SCRA, if a civil court issues a default judgment against you during your active military service (or within 60 days after the termination or release from military service), the court must reopen the case to allow you to defend your case if:

  • You, as a service member, were “materially affected" by your service from defending your action, and
  • You have a meritorious or legal defense to the court action

To take advantage of this SCRA protection, you must request that the court reopens your case no later than 90 days after leaving active duty military service.

Health Insurance and Life Insurance Reinstatement/Protections

During your active military service and for two years after your military duty, you can request to defer payments on your commercial life insurance.

The SCRA also allows you to reinstate your civilian health insurance when you leave active military duty if it was in active status when you began active duty and ended during your period of military duty.

These protections are for civilian/commercial policies and do not apply to the military Tricare health insurance or SGLI military life insurance.

Professional License Portability from State to State

Under recent updates to SCRA protections, Congress added the professional license portability provision. This allows service members and their spouses' out-of-state professional licenses to be recognized in new states they are stationed in with certain caveats. This protection covers areas not already addressed at the state level by what's known as an interstate compact.

This does not apply to law licenses, although many states have special provisions for military spouses with legal licenses who have relocated due to their spouse's military service.

Tax Jurisdiction Flexibility

A recent update to the SCRA provides service members and spouses of active duty military members more flexibility in determining in which state they pay taxes. Under the new SCRA updates, servicemembers and spouses may claim:

  • The residence or domicile of the service member
  • The residence or domicile of the spouse, or
  • The permanent duty station of the service member

Residency refers to where you physically live, while domicile refers to where you have official connections (e.g., own a home, are registered to vote, have a driver's license, etc.). Not all military family and work situations are addressed in this new portion of the federal law and it may be wise to consult with a tax expert on this issue.

Waiver of SCRA Rights and Protections

You can waive your SCRA rights, although it's not necessarily a good idea. SCRA rights can only be waived while on active duty or afterward. You cannot waive SCRA rights before joining active military service.

SCRA waivers are legally valid only if they are in writing and put in a separate document from the contract, lease, or other agreement you are entering. For instance, a landlord cannot put generic language about waiving SCRA rights in your apartment lease contract. Even if you sign an apartment lease with generic SCRA waiver language, it doesn't mean you have waived your rights. Instead, the landlord must draft a separate document for your signature in which you specifically agree to waive your rights.

It is wise to seek free military legal assistance or a civilian attorney before waiving SCRA rights.

Asserting Your Rights Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

The SCRA is frequently amended and updated. If you do have civil legal issues you believe may be covered by the SCRA, it is wise to request legal assistance from an attorney. Oftentimes with the help of an attorney, you can resolve a matter with a creditor, lender, business, or landlord without needing to take action in court.

Military personnel and dependents can request free legal services from their local military legal assistance office. Military judge advocates (attorneys) are not authorized to represent service members in civilian court cases. If you do need legal assistance in the civil court system, you should contact a civilian attorney specializing in military law and benefits to learn more. It may also be wise to get legal help from a judge advocate or tax attorney regarding which state to claim for tax purposes.

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