Thursday, June 5, 2014

TOP STORY>>Changing duty stations and leaving a lease? Know your legal rights

Charles Hasberry Jr.,
Chief of Legal Assistance

502nd Security Forces and Logistics
Support Group, JBSA-Randolph

E. Stephanie Hebert,
Legal Assistance Attorney

502nd Installation Support Group,

Brian Novak,
Chief of Legal Assistance
502nd Force Support Group,
JBSA-Fort Sam Houston

It is almost summer time which means that many service members from across the country will receive orders for a permanent change of station. A common dilemma faced by service members who rent their home is what to do about their lease, especially if they are in the middle of their contract.

The Service-members’ Civil Relief Act allows service members and their families to terminate leases, but only if they enter active-duty after signing a lease, or they sign a lease while on active-duty and then receive orders for a PCS or deployment for a period of 90 days or more. The Department of Justice interprets PCS to include discharge, resignation and separation under honorable conditions.

Most landlords, property managers and apartment complexes around the area are familiar with the SCRA due to the sheer number of military families who reside in this area. Notwithstanding, violations of federal and state landlord-tenancy law happen every day. Therefore, it is very important to educate yourself, your family and your fellow service-members on your legal rights.

If you or your spouse recently received orders for a PCS or deployment, and you plan on terminating your existing residential lease as a result, you should know that the SCRA spells out exactly what you need to do to terminate the lease without facing any penalties for early termination.

Two documents must be delivered to your landlord in order to successfully terminate your lease under the SCRA: a written notification of your intent to terminate the lease and a copy of your military orders confirming your PCS or deployment. Assuming that you deliver these two documents to your landlord, your lease will terminate 30 days after the next rental payment is due.

For example, if you provide written notice and a copy of your orders to your apartment manager on June 6, and your next rental payment is due on the first day of July, your lease will not terminate until 30 days thereafter on July 31. Unfortunately, you are responsible for the rent due in July even if you deploy or PCS in June. Had you given written notice in May, your lease would have terminated at the end of June.

If you know that you will soon receive PCS or deployment orders, plan ahead so that you won’t get stuck paying rent for a residence you’ve already vacated:

Read your entire lease agreement, as well as any attachments, and make sure you understand your obligations and rights under the contract, and the SCRA

Gather all paperwork regarding your lease, your security deposit, pet deposit, requests for repairs and monthly rental payments.

Obtain a draft of a SCRA termination letter from your command or your installation legal assistance office.

Send the notice of termination to your landlord via certified mail with a return receipt requested. Keep a copy of the notice and proof of delivery for your records. If you decide instead to deliver the notice in person, you should have the landlord sign a statement acknowledging receipt of the notice. You should also record the name of the recipient and the address and date of delivery.

Giving proper notice of termination of a lease can sometimes be difficult when you receive verbal notice of your PCS or deployment but you don’t receive your paper orders. When official orders are not available and the PCS or deployment is considered short notice, servicemembers should be provided with a letter or another comparable document from the unit commander or unit deployment manager.

Commanders and UDMs play a crucial role in this process. It is imperative that they assist members in obtaining their official orders as promptly as possible. When official orders are not available and the PCS or deployment is short notice, they should provide service-members with alternative documents.

Without official military orders, service-members may be forced to pay additional rent, risk negative credit reporting, or risk getting sued.

UCs and UDMs can contact the legal office for suggestions if an alternative document template is not available. Many young troops can suffer severe financial hardship due to no fault of their own if they do not receive the proper guidance and support from their units.

If you successfully terminate your lease in accordance with the SCRA, your landlord is required to refund any rent paid in advance as well as your security deposit, and is prohibited from assessing any penalty against your for early termination of the lease. Amounts may be deducted, however, for damages sustained to the property in accordance with the lease agreement.

Because they can’t keep your security deposit when you assert your rights under the SCRA, landlords and property managers may try to find other, more elusive ways to justify keeping your deposit. Landlords know that you may not be coming back to the area for a while. They also know that the likelihood of your contesting charges is low once you’ve already PCSd or deployed.

If you believe that your landlord or your fellow service-member’s landlord has wrongfully retained your security deposit or violated the SCRA in another manner, go to your installation legal assistance office and get help. Don’t forget that active duty personnel, Reservists and Guardsmen on Title 10 orders are entitled to free legal assistance.

When a landlord violates the SCRA, he can be fined or imprisoned, so a phone call from a legal assistance attorney may convince a landlord to abide by state and federal law. You can schedule a legal assistance appointment at your nearest installation.

The Little Rock AFB Legal Office has walk-in legal assistance available Monday from 2-3 p.m. and on Fridays from 9-10 a.m. The office is located in building 1250, suite 222.

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