Soldiers Face Legal Legwork Before Marching to War

Army Reserve Lt. Col. Joe Tauber concedes that while preparing a will is a "morbid thought" for soldiers about to ship off to the front lines, it is a part of the reality of preparing for war.

"Sometimes I have to convince them that yeah, that's the reality of it and you need to protect yourself and your family," said Tauber, a lawyer in Baltimore, Md., when he is not on military duty.

He has spent time on duty in Florida and Afghanistan since 2002, but is currently back in private practice.

But wills are only a small part of the legal tangle that activated reservists and National Guardsmen face before mobilizing. They also have to file plans for the care of their children, they may be encouraged to sign a power of attorney for their affairs and they may have to be brought up to speed on their legal rights concerning leases and credit debt while they are gone.

"The first time I was deployed was a real wake-up call," said Sgt. Rick Roth, a Maryland guardsman who was sent to Bosnia in 1996. He is now deployed to Andrews Air Force Base.

Because reservists and National Guard members see their units less often, their files are updated less often than those of active-duty personnel.

While the military still works with reservists throughout the year on legal issues, when it's time to mobilize, there is always more for the reservists to do, said Douglas E. Murray, executive director of the Army Reserve Association.

With deployments lasting for months at a time, leases can become an issue.

Many landlords are not aware that soldiers have a legal right to terminate leases signed before coming on active duty, said Maj. Michael Noyes of the Maryland National Guard.

"I've had a couple cases where landlords first told the service member they can't terminate the lease. We've had to send them a copy of the law," Noyes said. "Usually once they read it, it's pretty clear it's a federal crime if they try to impose an unlawful fee."

Active-duty personnel can also get interest on consumer loans reduced to 6 percent, said Michael Gallagher, a lawyer with the Social Security Administration.

Gallagher is helping the Maryland State Bar Association create a pamphlet on the rights of guardsmen who are called up.

"You do have to pay some interest [on consumer debt], but you can get judicial intervention," he said.

Noyes' office has form letters that military personnel can send to creditors and landlords.

"For 95 percent, 90 percent of the soldiers it seems to go okay," Noyes said. "For the other 5 or 10 percent we have to work with the creditor or landlord."

Single parents also have to make sure their children will be taken care of. While reservists must have a family care plan on file, when they are mobilized, those plans must be updated so children will not be left without guardians.

"When that soldier is activated, someone else is going to have temporary custody of that child," said James Butler, an assistant Maryland attorney general and an Army reservist. "Those are all already put together, we just have to make sure they're updated."

Roth, the guardsman now helping guard Andrews Air Force Base, was single when he was last called up in 1996, but has since started a family.

"Being married now, with a daughter, it's something you need to think about, what's going to happen if you die," he said.

For the younger men in his unit, "it's all new to them, it's a little more stressful," Roth said. But he added that the Guard works with units, both during the year and during mobilization, to make sure that all the legal i's are dotted and t's are crossed.

"It's not like you're just left hanging to dry," Roth said.