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Reservists May Qualify for Relief on Some Bills

Deployment reduces income and often puts a strain on families.

June 02, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The war in Iraq might have left the Carter family of Lancaster with a stack of delinquent bills but for a law with roots that date to the Civil War.

With her husband deployed at Camp Roberts and the family income reduced, Debbie Carter did what many spouses of reservists do: She gave the couple's lenders copies of her husband's deployment papers and requested in writing that interest rates on their loans be lowered, a move made possible by federal law.

"All the lenders I gave that letter to immediately changed the rate to 6%," said Carter, whose husband serves in the Army Reserves. "All my lenders were very cooperative -- except for one."

In the face of war, the matters of everyday life do not go away: The house note is still due each month. Property tax bills arrive with the certainty of spring.

With tens of thousands of American service members -- many of them reservists -- likely to remain in the Mideast for months to come, their families in California and throughout the nation are helped by a variety of measures: deferred water bills, protection from eviction, free calling cards. Some assistance is mandated by federal or state law. Other measures have come voluntarily from companies or local governments.

The federal law remains a key protection for people in the military. In war or peace, the protections take effect on the first day of active duty and end 30 to 90 days after the date of discharge from active duty.

The protections cover not only those stationed in a war zone, but also others, such as those who have been called to service and, for now, remain at U.S. bases.

Roots in Civil War

The nation's recognition of the burden that military service places on personal life dates as far back as the Civil War, when Congress passed a moratorium on civil actions against Union soldiers and sailors.

In 1918, Congress provided protections from such acts as bankruptcy and foreclosure for those fighting in World War I. With the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act in 1940, those protections became permanent.

The act provides all service members with some protections, including military reservists called to active duty.

It can be used to reduce interest rates on mortgage payments and other debt to 6% per year during the period of military service, protect from eviction when the rent is $1,200 or less and give courts discretion to delay civil actions. The act also prohibits creditors and insurers from taking adverse actions against service members who invoke the protections.

In sessions before deployment, service members and their families learn about the law, said Steven Read, director of Family Programs for the California National Guard.Landlords and lenders, however, are sometimes less aware.

"Sometimes they need a member of the legal society to call and say, 'Look, this is what the law says. It's here in black and white. It's not an option,' " he said.

In times of peace, Sgt. Gregory Carter drives a truck for Ralphs markets. Debbie Carter works as a medical biller. They share a four-bedroom home with their 18-year-old daughter Alicia, 2-year-old granddaughter Tayana and Gregory's father, Markus.

Loss of Pay

Last year, Gregory Carter began participating more frequently in drills at Camp Roberts, north of Paso Robles. Each day represented a significant reduction in pay: about $136. After Gregory was deployed Feb. 14, there was a lag between his transition from reserve pay to active-duty pay -- a lag that shook the family's finances.

Overnight, Debbie Carter became the one to make sure the family stayed afloat. Along with worrying about Gregory's safety, she dealt with lenders and got rates reduced on the home mortgage from 8.5% to 6%. A furniture store allowed the couple to make no payments and pay no interest on a bedroom set until Gregory Carter returns.

But even after a military attorney at Edwards Air Force Base called on the family's behalf, one car dealership would not wait for Gregory Carter's active-duty pay to kick in, his wife said. Because of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Act, no legal action could be taken against Gregory Carter. Nothing, however, prevented legal action against Debbie Carter, who was threatened with a lawsuit to collect $650.

Eventually, Gregory Carter's pay kicked in, supplemented with a differential pay offered by Ralphs, and his wife paid the bill in installments.

The relief act is good, Debbie Carter said. "But it doesn't cover the spouses unless you're military. That's up to the creditor."

"I advise people the act is very helpful, but it is not foolproof," said Lt. Col. Randall Bunn, deputy staff judge advocate in the legal office at Edwards.

Now the act is receiving renewed attention.

In January, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) introduced legislation that would expand protections from evictions from the current rent maximum of $1,200 to a rent as high as $1,700. The bill also would expand the ability of military personnel to terminate leases when their duties require them to move.

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