FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Army News Service, Dec. 13, 2006) - Most servicemembers are familiar with the attractive array of military benefits that range from the GI Bill to big-ticket retention bonuses.

But another, lesser known set of benefits that includes everything from interest-rate reductions to penalty-free lease terminations may have escaped the notice of both new and seasoned military members.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, formerly known as the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act, is a federal law that grants military members several rights as they enter active duty and protects them while serving. The law addresses rental agreements, security deposits, prepaid rent, eviction, installment contracts, credit card and mortgage interest rates, foreclosure, civil judicial proceedings and income tax payments.

"The SCRA protects military members so they can serve without worries such as an eviction or inflated interest rates," said Tim Haight, acting chief, Client Services Division, Fort Sam Houston Legal Assistance Office. "It's hard to focus on the mission while deployed if you're worried about your family being evicted or unable to afford bills."

Haight described a recent case in which a servicemember was sent on temporary duty and returned to find her possessions on the sidewalk; most had been stolen.

"Under the SCRA, it was illegal for the landlord to evict her without following the proper steps under the SCRA," Haight said. Haight expects the servicemember to receive a significant monetary settlement since the landlord committed a violation of the Soldier's rights under the SCRA.

Eviction is just one area of protection under the SCRA. The following are a few of the many SCRA benefits:

Interest rate reductions

Servicemembers have the right to request a 6-percent interest-rate cap for debt or liability incurred before active duty, to include joint accounts with a spouse. Any interest in excess of 6 percent is "forgiven." The interest-rate cap is applicable only to pre-service debt or liability. Servicemembers must provide the creditor written notice with a copy of military orders no later than 180 days after the date of termination or release from active duty. The rate cap does not apply to federally guaranteed student loans. Additionally, creditors cannot reduce the term of a loan, such as a 60-month loan reduced to 48 months; doing so defeats the purpose of the SCRA and is prohibited.

Release from housing leases

An active-duty servicemember who has received permanent change-of-station orders or who is being deployed for 90 days or more may terminate a housing lease with a 30-day written notice. This applies also to servicemembers who signed a lease before entering active duty. However, servicemembers should have a legal-assistance attorney review their lease before signing; lack of attention to detail could result in the forfeiture of this benefit.

Protection from eviction

If a servicemember signs a lease where the rent is less than $2,465 per month (current maximum rent amount), the servicemember and family members cannot be evicted without a court order. The lease must be for premises that are to be occupied primarily as a residence by the servicemember and family. Servicemembers must submit a request to the court for protection under the SCRA. Legal assistance attorneys can provide further guidance.

Auto lease termination

Active-duty members who have received permanent change-of-station orders outside the continental United States or who have been called to duty for more than 180 days may terminate an automobile lease. The servicemember must provide written notice of termination to the lessor with a copy of orders and return the vehicle within 15 days of written notice. This provision includes automobiles leased for personal or business use by servicemembers and their dependents.

Health insurance reinstatement

Servicemembers can reinstate their health insurance upon termination or release from service. However, the insurance must have been in effect before service commenced and terminate during the time of military service. The reinstatement of insurance does not apply to servicemembers entitled to participate in employer-offered insurance. Servicemembers must apply for reinstatement within 120 days after termination or release from military service.

(Elaine Wilson writes for the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)