Bill would allow military spouses to get out of leases without penalty

By Tom Corrigan - [email protected]

“We ran into all kinds of problems,” said Portsmouth’s Cindy Southern.

It was 1992. Southern and her children were living in Charleston, N.C. Her husband was serving the Navy overseas during the first Desert Storm when she got the call every military spouse dreads. At 22, her husband had been lost aboard a Navy frigate.

At a time when she already had more than enough on her mind, Southern found she had another big problem. All she wanted to do, she said, was pack up and move back to be with her family in her native Portsmouth. But Southern had signed a one-year lease on a home in North Carolina.

“They held that lease over me,” Southern said, adding she tried to explain the situation to her landlords. “They didn’t care to hear it.”

Eventually, after some wrangling, Southern was able to move back to Portsmouth and escaped her lease. But apparently her story is an all too common one. Stories such as Southern’s have prompted action by Sen. Rob Portman, (R-OH) and others.

On Thursday, Portman, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Doug Jones (D-AL) introduced the bipartisan Gold Star Spouses Leasing Relief Act.

The legislation, originally introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) and Cheri Bustos (D-IL), would modify the Service members Civil Relief Act (SCRA) to allow a widow or widower of a service member who died while in military service (i.e., a Gold Star spouse) to terminate a jointly held residential lease, without penalty, within one year of the servicemember’s death.

“A grieving military spouse dealing with the death of their loved one on active duty should be able to end their lease without paying high termination fees,” said Sen. Portman. “This bill, with the support of numerous veterans’ groups and the Department of Defense, is a commonsense fix for Gold Star spouses. I encourage my colleagues in the Senate to join me in supporting this legislation to provide relief for our Gold Star spouses.”

“All three of my brothers served in the military and I deeply appreciate the sacrifices that service members make for our country. We owe them-and their families-the very best,” said Sen.Warren. “I’m glad to partner with my colleagues on a bipartisan bill to provide grieving widows and widowers with financial relief and peace of mind from residential leases that are no longer necessary following the tragic death of their service member spouse.”

When a service member receives military orders, his or her spouse is often required to relocate and then sign a lease for a house, apartment, or other dwelling. But when the service member dies during military service, the surviving spouse may be forced to pay off the remainder of that residential lease even though the couple only entered into that contract to accommodate the service member’s assignment.

Under the Service Members Civil Relief Act (SCRA), active duty service members may cancel agreements such as home or apartment rental contracts when they are deployed or relocated. However, these protections do not explicitly apply to Gold Star spouses who are in these agreements jointly with a service member who died while in military service.

Southern noted while there is usually a clause supposedly making allowances for military service related issues in many leases, those clauses aren’t always honored. Other problems can crop up as well. She said she knows of service spouses who have trouble getting extensions for filing income taxes while their spouse is overseas. Southern said any help such as that offered by the new bill is welcome and hopefully a step in the right direction.

The Gold Star Spouses Leasing Relief Act also is supported by The American Legion, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and the National Military Family Association (NMFA).

“Gold Star families should not be forcibly bound to lease agreements made before the loss of their loved one. This bill affords every Gold Star family the decency of the financial protections that their service member earned,” said Denise H. Rohan, National Commander of The American Legion.

“Surviving spouses should not be made to pay extra rent or fees to end their lease after the active duty death of their loved one. We applaud Sen. Warren for providing a remedy for the undue burden during a time of grief,” said Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of TAPS.

By Tom Corrigan

[email protected]