The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is a law that provides protection to active-duty service members and their dependents from civil litigation that could occur during their service. The law's protections extend to members of the National Guard or reserves who are called into service, and to the commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Public Health Service. But for this protection, service members would be vulnerable to having court proceedings occur during times when they could not appear and defend themselves, or even subject to default judgments.
The SCRA provides service members and their families with protection from eviction, and with the potential opportunity to void a lease agreement that continues into their period of active-duty service.
Ordinarily, rented premises that are occupied or intended to be occupied by a service member, when a service member has entered into a lease:
before entering military service,
before receiving orders of a permanent change of station, or
before receiving orders to deploy with a military unit for not less than ninety days,
the service member has the option of giving notice to terminate the lease. In order to exercise that right, following the receipt of orders that trigger the SCRA's protections, the service member must provide the landlord with written notice of the intent to terminate the lease. Service members can find sample notices to landlords online, from legal aid organizations and from a variety of military base websites, or they can consult a legal assistance office.
For month-to-month rentals, the termination becomes effective thirty days after the date rent is next due. Service members should take note of state law, as they may be entitled to terminate a month-to-month lease on shorter notice under the laws of their state.
For leases with longer terms, the termination becomes effective on the last day of the month following the month in which notice is delivered.
Rent remains due through the end of the notice period. If a service member has paid rent in advance and in excess of the total amount due through the end of the notice period, the landlord must return any unearned portion of the rent. The SCRA does not apply to rental properties if the rent due exceeds a maximum cap, the amount of which is adjusted each year for inflation, In 2015 the SCRA applied to residential tenancies for which the monthly rent was $3,329.84 or less.
Although self-help eviction is unlawful in most states and circumstances, such that a landlord must obtain a court order of eviction in order to remove a tenant from a rental property, some state laws include exceptions to that general requirement. Under the SCRA, even if such an exception would otherwise apply the landlord must obtain a court order authorizing eviction in order to remove a protected service member or their family from a house or apartment.
A landlord who violates the requirement to obtain a court order may be criminally prosecuted. If the court hearing the eviction action finds that the service member's military service has materially affected the member's ability to pay rent, the court may grant a stay of the proceedings for ninety days, unless in the opinion of the court, justice and equity require that the stay last a longer or shorter period of time, and may also enter any other order that the court deems just.
Prior to seeking a default judgment, a landlord must file an affidavit with the court attesting that the defendant is not on active duty military service, or that the plaintiff landlord was unable to determine the defendant's military status.
While the service member seeking relief under the SCRA must provide a copy of the relevant written orders along with the written notice to a landlord, a landlord may also consider using the status finder provided by the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) to verify eligibility. Landlord's should be aware that formal written orders are sometimes delayed, and that a variety of letters or other documents that do not at first blush appear to be written orders may in fact be sufficient under the Act.
Many states have passed laws that permit servicemembers to terminate their leases upon being called to active duty, or upon being transferred if on active duty. As those laws do not necessarily follow the same eligibility criteria as the SCRA, it is important that a landlord be familiar with any state laws relating to tenants who are members of the armed forces. Service members can consult a legal assistance office for information about any applicable state laws.