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Legal advice might have saved officer from moving expenses

Feb. 28, 2011 - 10:38AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 28, 2011 - 10:38AM  |  
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Asking for professional advice can save you a lot of hassle — and money.

Consider the situation of a captain stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., whose landlord notified him the week before Christmas that he would have to move his family by the end of January. He was just four months into a year's lease, with the option to renew for another two years.

His landlords — also a Marine family — had been approved for the Homeowners Assistance Program. They put the house up for sale and it sold within a few weeks.

Service members who rent homes "are getting hung out to dry" by military landlords who are selling their houses using the Homeowners Assistance Program, said the captain, who asked to remain anonymous.

His landlords tell a different story: They said the captain's insistence that the lease convert to a month-to-month basis when the house was sold tied their hands in helping him stay in it. If he had sought legal advice as they asked him to, they contend, he would still be in the house.

Regardless of whether a landlord receives HAP assistance, tenants are protected by various state laws — and military tenants have extra protections under the Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act.

HAP is designed to help some military homeowners who face big financial losses when they must sell their homes under certain military-related circumstances — such as an official permanent change-of-station move.

In most cases, HAP procedures require that the service member find a buyer for the home before assistance is provided.

The Marine couple who owned the house in Quantico said they were in a difficult financial position after they moved from their Virginia house to a new duty station.

"The house was financially sucking us dry," said the Marine wife, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Yet after being approved for HAP assistance, they said they intended to do everything possible to allow their tenants to stay in the house after the sale by selling only to an investor and keeping the current lease intact.

But when the captain signed an addendum to his lease agreeing to allow real estate agents to show his house to potential buyers, he insisted on adding a provision that the lease would convert to month-to-month immediately upon the sale of the property. He said he wanted to be able to negotiate rent with the new owner, and also didn't want to be tied to the lease if he didn't like the new owner.

But his insistence on a month-to-month lease severely curtailed the owners' ability to sell the house to investors and led them to open the sale to the general public, the Marine wife said.

"We begged them to get advice from legal assistance," she said.

The landlords said that if push had come to shove, they would not have evicted the captain — although they could have, once the lease was up, if they had applied for a court order as required under the SCRA.

This is a crucial point: Regardless of the term of a lease, a service member or the member's dependents cannot be evicted except by court order under Section 301 of that law.

Again, this doesn't mean you can't be evicted; it just means the landlord must go to court to do it.

The Marine captain said that if he had been fully aware of his rights under the SCRA, he would not have rushed to find another place. But once he moved, he waived those rights.

No one — except maybe legal assistance officers — can be expected to know all the intricacies of their protections and benefits under various laws. And even legal assistance officers may have to get additional expert advice.

But as Army Col. Shawn Shumake, director of the Defense Department's office of legal policy, told lawmakers recently, legal assistance officers have a responsibility to "take care of our folks and represent them zealously."

So whether you're signing a contract for a car sale or a lease on a house, take advantage of your benefits and seek legal advice on base. What you don't know can hurt you.

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