What is the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)?
Juggling financial and legal responsibilities can be stressful. Paying off credit card debt or appearing in court during an active duty mobilization or deployment is even more complicated. It puts additional burdens on military service members and their families. Enter the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).
The SCRA, among other things, allows a service member to postpone or suspend certain civil actions while mobilized or deployed for active duty, including evictions, mortgage foreclosures, bankruptcies and other civil lawsuits. It covers all military service members from the date they enter active duty through 30 to 90 days after active duty discharge.
This article covers the basics of the SCRA and how to take advantage of its protections. FindLaw's Military Law section has related articles and resources.
Servicemembers Civil Relief Act: Overview
Congress first passed a moratorium on civil actions (foreclosure, divorce, etc.) against Union soldiers and sailors during the U.S. Civil War. The SCRA formalized and expanded these protections when it was enacted in 1940, just before U.S. involvement in World War II.
The SCRA has been frequently amended, but provides, among other things:
- protection against default judgments
- stays of court proceedings
- stay or vacation of execution of judgments, attachments, or garnishments
- tolling of most statutes of limitation
- interest rate caps (at 6%) for debts incurred prior to active duty service
- early termination of leases
The SCRA seeks to assist service members transitioning from full-time civilians to full-time military so that they can continue to meet their financial obligations and concentrate on their military duties.
If a defendant in a lawsuit fails to appear in court because she is an active-duty military service member, the court may not enter a default judgment. This is known as a "stay," which remains in place for up to 60 days after the service member is discharged from active duty. To be eligible for such a stay, the court must determine whether the service member's ability to participate in a judicial action (such as answering the initial complaint or appearing in court) has been materially affected by her military service.
So what exactly qualifies as materially affected? The court generally will consider two questions in making this determination:
- Has the service member attempted to take leave only to have it denied? In other words, is she trying to game the system or is she legitimately unavailable to appear?
- What is the actual adverse material affect to the service member if she does not appear at the civil court proceeding?
If a default judgment is entered against an eligible service member on active duty (or within 60 days of discharge), the defendant may challenge it by presenting proof of a valid defense.
Court Proceedings, Judgments, Attachments, and Garnishments
Any eligible service member who has received notice of a court proceeding may ask the court for a stay. (Alternatively, the court may order a stay through its own motion if it has documentation of the service member's active-duty status.) The court will grant a service member's application for a stay of 90 days or longer if his application includes:
- A written document showing how the service member's military requirements materially affect his ability to appear in court, with a date for when he may be able to appear; and
- A written document from the service member's commanding officer stating a) that his service is required and b) that leave is not authorized for the given date(s) for a court proceeding.
Additionally, the court may stay or vacate the execution of a judgment, attachment or garnishment entered against a service member. This includes wage garnishments, mortgage foreclosures, evictions, and attachments. The court must have proof that the service member's ability to comply with the judgment, attachment, or garnishment would negatively impact his military service (effective for up to 90 days after discharge).
Asserting Your Rights Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act
In order to assert your SCRA rights, your commanding officer will need to submit either a single record or multiple record request or, in some cases, you may be able to simply send a letter evidencing your service obligation and the SCRA protections you are seeking. To learn more, you should speak with a civilian attorney who specializes in military law and benefits.