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Act may protect active-duty reservists

WASHINGTON -- Guardsmen and reservists called to active duty to fight the global war on terror may seek credit protection under a law passed to aid GIs in an earlier global war.

The Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1940 protects military members from certain legal obligations while they are actively engaged in national defense.

Among the Act's chief provisions is its ability to reduce interest rates on debts incurred before active-duty status, protect servicemembers and their families from eviction, and delay civil court actions.

But it is not automatic. For servicemembers to take advantage of the act, individual servicemembers should notify their creditors of the active-duty status and their intent to invoke their civil relief act rights.

Sometimes, however, creditors do not strictly adhere to the letter of the law, even when they are given proper notice. In one case about to enter litigation, a Reserve airman from California is depending on the power of the American Bar Association to help him pick up the pieces of his shattered financial life.

According to Col. John S. Odom Jr., a Reserve legal officer temporarily assigned to 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., the reservist in question is a master sergeant who owned a construction company, a home and a boat before being activated for a year.

Now, just two months after coming off active duty, the Travis AFB, Calif., noncommissioned officer's creditors are threatening to foreclose on his home and his boat, his life savings is gone, his credit is wrecked and his company is in limbo.

"He's a classic poster child for the act," Odom said.

Odom said while most of the creditors complied with the sergeant's request for relief, several did not. Now, immediately after the sergeant has come off active duty, all his creditors are demanding immediate payment of everything he owes them -- just as he is trying to get his business re-started. The key point of contention, Odom said, is a provision in the law that allows a reservist to seek a moratorium on continuing obligations for a period equal to the time spent on active duty, to give the servicemember time to recover financially.

The ABA's committee on legal assistance to military personnel has agreed to represent the sergeant, without charge, to help publicize the act.

"He's a dream client, as far as documentation goes," Odom said. "He's kept copies of everything."

While all servicemembers receive some protections under the act, additional rights are specifically geared toward members of the Reserve community who are mobilized. Department of Defense officials said March 19 that 212,617 reservists and guardsmen had been called to active duty.

Specifically, rights under the act include:

-- Limiting interest rates to 6 percent for all debts incurred before beginning active-duty service. This provision includes interest rates on credit cards, mortgages and auto loans. It does not apply to federal student loans.

-- Protecting family members from eviction during times of active-duty service, regardless of whether the lease was signed before or after activation. If the monthly lease is $1,200 or less, a landlord must seek a court order to authorize an eviction.

-- Prohibiting repossessions and foreclosures without court permission.

-- Postponing civil lawsuits the servicemember is a direct party to, such as bankruptcy.

-- Extending deadlines to file law suits by eliminating time served on active duty from calculating any statute of limitations.

-- Protecting active-duty people from taxation by states other than by their state of domicile.

-- Prohibiting creditors and insurance companies from making adverse credit reports, denying credit or taking adverse financial action against a servicemember based solely on invocation of the act.

For more information, contact local legal assistance offices.

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