The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protects soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, commissioned officers in the Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from being sued while on active military service of their country and for up to a year after active duty.
In a divorce, SCRA protects active duty military personnel who may request a stay or postponement of the divorce.
A military defendant may enlist SCRA to postpone the case against him or her for the duration of the military service plus 60 days. Generally, however, in cases where the defendant is in the military, “the court must stay the proceedings for at least 90 days (upon application of the Service Member or his or her attorney or on the court’s own motion)” when the court determines there “may be a defense to the action and defense cannot be presented without the presence of the Service Member.”
In order to apply for these protections the servicemember must be a party to the suit. The provision applies to civil lawsuits, suits for paternity, child custody suits, and bankruptcy debtor/creditor meeting; however, it does not apply to administrative hearings, criminal trials, child support proceedings, actions where the service member is a material witness, and situations where the “service member has leave available and has made no attempt to use his/her leave to attend the proceedings.”
Service personnel who become parties to an unwanted divorce use SCRA’s protections to contest it. Often the servicemember’s commander writes a letter to the court and the opposing party’s attorney stating that the servicemember cannot attend the proceedings. The member should not have an attorney draft the letter to the court because a letter could be considered an appearance by the service member and could subject the service member to the jurisdiction of the court.
SCRA was formerly called the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act of 1940. Despite the act’s official date of 1940, its antecedents go back as the Civil War when the Congress passed a moratorium on civil actions brought against Union soldiers and sailors. This meant that any legal action involving a civil matter was put on hold until after the soldier or sailor returned from the war. Examples of civil matters included breach of contract, bankruptcy, foreclosure or divorce proceedings.
Congress’ intent in passing the moratorium was to protect both national interests and those of servicemembers. First, Congress wanted servicemembers to be able to fight without worrying about problems at home. Secondly, because most soldiers and sailors during the Civil War were not well paid, it was difficult for them to honor their pre-service debts, such as mortgage payments or other credit.
The Act may now be found in the Appendix to Title 50 of the U.S. Code, Sections 501-596.