Legal Assistance Office
One of the more common problem areas we see at the White Sands Legal Assistance Office are landlord-tenant disputes.
These issues fit into two general categories. First, a Soldier rented an apartment for a year and after living there a few months the Soldier receives orders to deploy or change duty stations. The Soldier meets with the landlord, who states the Soldier is breaking the lease and must pay the fees and costs as stated in the lease document.
Second, a Soldier is moving at the end of a lease and cleans the house or apartment. The Soldier and his family did not see any damage as they cleaned the apartment.
However, within a few days of arriving at their next assignment, he receives a bill from the landlord for repairing holes in the wall and fixing other damage, and the bill is several hundred dollars.
In the first example, perhaps the landlord is not familiar with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, specifically section 305. The SCRA is a Federal law and it applies to leases of residential properties.
Under the SCRA there are three situations in which a Soldier can break the lease without incurring a penalty. When, during the term of the lease, a person first enters military service, or a Soldier receives permanent change of station orders, or orders to deploy with a military unit for a period of not less than 90 days, during these situations only the Soldier can break the lease without a penalty.
However, this is true ONLY if the Soldier notifies the landlord in the manner required by the SCRA.
In order to invoke section 305 of the SCRA, the Soldier must deliver to the landlord (or his agent) written notice of termination and a copy of orders.
Oral notice is NOT sufficient! Delivery is accomplished by hand, private business carrier, or through the United States mail with return receipt requested and proper address and postage.
It is always best to get written confirmation that this notice was received. Lease terminations are not effective immediately, per the SCRA: “in the case of a lease…that provides for monthly payment of rent…30 days after the first date on which the next rental payment is due and payable after the date on which the notice…is delivered.”
In other words, if your rent is due on the 1st of the month and you provide notice on the 31st of August then your lease will terminate on the 30th of September. If however you wait until the following day, the 1st of September, your lease will terminate at the end of October. It pays to provide prompt notification as soon as you know you will be leaving.
The SCRA has teeth. If the landlord “knowingly seizes, holds, or detains the personal effects, security deposit, or other property of a servicemember or…dependent who lawfully terminates a lease covered by this section…for the purpose of subjecting or attempting to subject any of such property to a claim for rent accruing subsequent to the date of termination…shall be fined…or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.” Additionally, the SCRA has been expanded in recent years to provide some additional protections for spouses of Servicemembers.
In regard to the second issue: the bill from the landlord for fixing and cleaning an apartment or house after you’ve already fixed and cleaned it? Do what you can to avoid the problem. Coordinate with the landlord and set a mutually agreeable time when the landlord or his agent can walk through the apartment or house with you or your dependent. And if a follow-up walk through is required—schedule it! While this may be difficult with all of the things that need to be accomplished when you move, it can save you a lot of money. Otherwise you and the landlord may argue about what needs repair or needs to be cleaned, and it is an argument that can cost you hundreds of dollars. If you believe you have been unfairly billed, you may be protected by various Federal and state laws (depending on where the rental property was located). Such protections often require timely invocation or are considered waived.
If you have questions pertaining to rental agreements or other legal matters, call the White Sands Legal Office at (575) 678-1263 and make an appointment with the legal assistance attorney. Contacting our office as soon as you know of a legal issue can prevent the loss of money and time.