Landlords & Lenders Beware: New Law Changes SMO Rules

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act permits active military personnel to terminate leases on residences and vehicles when they receive a permanent change of station order or a deployment order, provided that the period is longer than 90 days. Landlords and vehicle leasing companies cannot collect penalties (including late charges) as long as they are provided a notice.

Stop Movement Orders (“SMOs”) have become more frequent, particularly in light of the challenges presented by COVID. Personnel subject to SMOs found that their orders did not qualify under the SCRA as permanent change of station orders and found themselves facing penalties when they tried to terminate leases. 

In January of 2021, the law was changed, retroactive to March 1, 2020. At this time, 50 U.C. Code § 3955 was amended to specifically include a “stop movement order issued by the Secretary concerned in response to a local, national, or global emergency, effective for an indefinite period or for a period of not less than 30 days, which prevents the  servicemember or servicemember’s dependents from occupying the lease for a residential, professional, business, agricultural, or similar purpose.” There is a similar provision for vehicle leases.

Stop Movement Orders & Leases

In order to use a Stop Movement Order to terminate a lease it has to be:

  • Issued by the secretary of defense (not a state governor)
  • In response to a local, national or global emergency
  • For an indefinite period or a period of not less than 30 days

Further, if you want to use the SCRA to terminate a lease the effect on the servicemember must be that SMO prevents them (or their dependents) from “from occupying the lease for a residential, professional, business, agricultural or other purpose.” For vehicles, the SMO must result in the servicemember (or dependents) not being able to use the vehicle for “personal or business transportation.”

Requirements Loosened

Landlords and lenders may no longer have stringent requirements that servicemembers must follow to provide notification of termination of leases. Notification is sufficient if landlords and lenders deliver notices along with a copy of the orders to the lessor or its agent by any of these means:

  • By hand
  • By mail (it would be prudent to use certified or registered mail)
  • Via private carrier (like FedEx)
  • By electronic means including:
    • Email (as long as the lender designates the email address)
    • Posting material to a website or other internet or electronic-based information repository to which the lessee and the lessor has granted access
    • other electronic means reasonably calculated to ensure actual receipt of the material by the lessor

For more information, servicemembers can contact their local JAG Office. The Army has a dedicated telephone number at 502-624-2771.