The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003 (SCRA) protects those who serve their country by granting them special rights, such as the ability to break their rental leases, among other allowances.
Simply put, the SCRA serves our national security interests by assisting those who are called into active duty, so their personal lives, and the lives of their family members, do not fall apart while the servicemember is performing his/her duties.
For the most part, landlord-tenant law is a state-by-state affair, with legislatures setting the basic rules for such things as security deposits and evictions.
Many states follow the framework set by the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) of 1972, but even still, municipalities are allowed to pass local ordinances, such as rent control in Santa Monica and San Francisco, or the requirement in Miami, Florida that landlords must get a permit before hanging out their “For Rent” sign.
Since participation in the URLTA is voluntary, there are only a few federally mandated rules on housing, such as the federal lead disclosure requirement.
As Congress realized that our servicemembers were falling into debt, or unable to fulfill contracts because of their active duty requirements, the Government knew something had to be done. Thus, the federally enforced Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act of 1940 was passed. In 2003, it became the known as the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
The SCRA helps servicemembers who are called to active duty, and their families, by allowing for the postponement or suspension of a range of civil obligations.
These protections go far beyond rental housing contracts:
- Limiting interest on existing debt to 6 percent
- Protection from foreclosure on existing mortgages
- Postponement of pending trials
- Reinstatement of private health insurance
- Termination or suspension of mobile phone contracts
- Termination of automobile lease agreements
For landlords across the United States, the law can affect their relationship with a tenant in several ways,
- Termination of residential and business lease agreements
- Protection from eviction
- Protection from default judgments
Who is Protected?
First, before we get into the law’s protections, it’s helpful to understand who is eligible.
The law covers all active duty members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, as well as reservists called up for military service, and National Guard ordered to active duty for more than 30 consecutive days.
Additionally, it also includes commissioned officers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Public Health Service.
Legally speaking, it covers all those on active duty who are paid under direct control of the federal government under Title 10 of the U.S. Code (pdf) and includes servicemembers stationed on military bases and naval vessels either in the United States or abroad.
In addition, the 2003 update to the 1940 law expanded coverage to include federally trained and paid members serving under Title 32 of the U.S. Code (pdf), when they are called up for more than 30 consecutive days to respond to a national emergency under the command of a state governor.
For example, National Guard members who were called to duty after September 11, 2001, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina served under Title 32 and were subject to the protection of the SCRA.
Under Title III of the SCRA, servicemembers who enlist or who are called up to active duty for longer than 180 days may terminate month-to-month and other residential and business lease agreements if they give at least a 30-day notice.
A servicemember who seeks to break a lease must provide the landlord or property manager written notice of the termination, along with a copy of his or her military orders. The notice may be delivered by hand, but if it is mailed, it must be sent with return receipt requested via the USPS.
For month-to-month agreements, once the notice is sent, the lease is terminated 30 days following the next date that rent is due after the notice is delivered.
That means that if the tenant’s rent is due on the first of each month and the termination notice is sent on any date after August 1, the lease will terminate as of October 1.
All Other Leases
For all other leases, the termination is effective on the last day of the next month after the notice is received. For example, if notice is sent on June 25, the lease would terminate on July 31.
At that point, the landlord has 30 days to return any prepaid rent and security deposits, except to cover unpaid rent or the repair of any actual damages the tenant is liable for under the lease agreement.
The law also allows courts to postpone eviction of a servicemember’s spouse, children or other dependents if military service affects the family’s ability to pay the rent.
The law does not prohibit evictions outright, nor does it release servicemembers and their families from their obligations to pay the rent that they owe. A landlord may still serve a termination notice if a servicemember or family member falls behind on rent, but the landlord is required to inform the court of the tenant’s active duty status.
The judge would then be able to consider whether the servicemember’s military status affects his or her ability to pay the rent, and whether to delay the eviction or allow it to proceed.
Up to Three Months
The law enables courts to postpone eviction for three months, or at the judge’s discretion, for either a shorter or longer amount of time. Depending on the facts of the specific case, the court may also rule that an eviction may proceed.
Maximum Rent Amount
Also, the law limits application of this provision to leases with a maximum rent amount that is adjusted each year based on the Consumer Price Index.
For 2014, the eviction protection applies to leases with monthly rent up to $3,217.81, provided that the lease was signed prior to enlistment or the date of active duty.
Protection from Default Judgments
A default judgment can occur if a party to a lawsuit doesn’t show up for court. For example, in eviction cases where a tenant fails to appear to contest the eviction, a landlord would then ask the judge for a default judgment granting the eviction.
At that point, SCRA requires the court to ask the landlord to file an affidavit verifying whether the tenant is active duty military. Alternately, if the plaintiff is unable to provide such verification the law requires an affidavit stating that the plaintiff was unable to determine the defendant’s military status.
Cases Can Be Re-Opened
If a servicemember returns home from service to find they have a default judgment against them, the law also allows the servicemember to ask the court to re-open the judgment to allow for a proper defense.
Furthermore, if a landlord knowingly reports false information to the court regarding someone’s military status under SCRA, the landlord can be fined and imprisoned for up to a year under the law.
Checking Active Duty Status
To verify a tenant’s active duty status for provisions under SCRA, the landlord must provide the court an affidavit with a report attached, called a Certificate, that can be obtained for free from the official SCRA site, operated by the Department of Defense.
Here’s an example of an affidavit form from Madison County, Alabama.
Note: There is at least one privately operated, nongovernmental site that charges a fee to perform a search for SCRA eligibility and provide the required affidavit. However, the official site is free, and record requests for a single individual do not require any sign up or account creation by the requester.
The official SCRA site allows anyone to submit a request for a verification of active duty status under Title 10 of the U.S. Code for an individual on a specified date.
The date entered allows the site to check whether or not the individual was either actively serving, had received a notice to serve, or had served up to 367 days prior to the given date.
To perform a search, the site requires the requester to enter the individual’s name and either their date of birth or Social Security number, along with an active duty status date. When the request is submitted, the site immediately provides the report as a downloadable PDF file.
This is one of the rare situations where a landlord needs to have a tenant’s Social Security number (SSN). Without the tenant’s SSN, it’s not possible to say with certainty that the report that’s generated refers to the correct person, because name and date of birth alone are not enough to uniquely identify someone.
If the requester provides only a name and date of birth, the report will include a disclaimer saying that the report is not authoritative.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is a complex law, and landlords who have questions about how the law affects their own unique situation with a tenant should consult a lawyer for legal advice.
Also, the Congressional Research Service has produced this 26-page paper “The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA): An Explanation.” (PDF via U.S Representative Paul Ryan)