Understanding SOFA, your legal status

Community members with legal questions can make an appointment with the Stuttgart Law Center, located on Kelley Barracks. Photo by Balmina Sehra

Stuttgart Law Center

As a newly arrived member to the community, it is important to understand your legal status in Germany and your protections. Service members, civilians and family members on military orders are governed by the NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Understanding how the SOFA affects you will make for a more enjoyable overseas tour, and perhaps prevent unpleasant, potentially costly mistakes.

NATO Status of Forces Agreement

The SOFA provides the basis for the legal status of military, U.S. civilian employees and dependents living in Germany on orders. Under an additional supplementary agreement, personnel in Germany also enjoy privileges not granted to others Service Members stationed elsewhere in Europe. These agreements affect status, entry and departure from the host nation, military training within host nation territory, jurisdiction, law enforcement, taxation, import and export laws, driving privileges, employment, mail, schooling, housing and much more.

German law applies to everyone

Although the SOFA determines your legal status, it is important to understand that German law applies to U.S. personnel both on and off base. U.S. installations are not U.S. soil. Additionally, while there are many similarities between German and U.S. law, there are also many stark differences. For example, spanking or paddling children as a means of punishment for disobedience is prohibited under German criminal law. German law considers it “physical punishment,” which makes it tantamount to child abuse. German civil law also differs quite a bit from what most may be familiar with in the U.S.


Too often, Americans sign German documents without properly reviewing them. When considering, for example, a cellphone contract, don’t sign it until someone who reads German reviews the documents, or if you don’t understand your obligations. In Germany, many service contracts automatically renew for one-year increments after the initial two-year expiration. You must give proper written notice to terminate the contract; for example, if you fail to give proper written notice of termination leaving, you could be on the hook for an extra year of cellphone service after leaving Germany. It is possible to send the notice with an effective date that is well in the future. For instance, notice could be sent as early as a month after service begins, but have an effective date that is two years in the future. Finally, keep a copy of termination notices and the company’s response. Army Community Service can help with proactively terminating such services. An alternative to signing a contract is to get a prepaid plan, cancellable monthly.

Host nation relations

A number of issues can be avoided with a little deference to our German hosts and awareness of host nation law. For instance, in German culture, German citizens are encouraged to report inappropriate behavior, like parking in a no-parking area. If someone tells you that you are parked in the wrong spot, it would behoove you to move; small confrontations combined with a language barrier quickly escalate, resulting in police involvement, hefty fines and court costs.

In Germany, if you flip someone off or use aggressive language toward someone else, you can be sued and forced to pay what is known as “Schmerzensgeld,” or “pain money.” In Germany, folding, locking-blade knives and all knives with a blade longer than 12cm (4.7 inches) are generally banned. Furthermore, the following knives are considered weapons: spring knives; fall knives; fist knives; butterfly knives; one-hand knives with a blade longer than 12cm; and knives with a stationary blade longer than 12 cm.

For more information, you can visit the German government’s English translation of their weapons laws at their website, https://www.bmj.de/EN/. Scroll down and find the link to Translations of Statutes and Ordinances. The laws affecting knives are under WaffG, or Weapons Act. If you choose to carry a pocketknife, never carry it to a local fest, large public gatherings, places where alcohol is consumed and where there will be a police presence.

Traffic laws

Speed cameras are much more common in Stuttgart and throughout Germany than they are in the U.S. Unfortunately, the Law Center lacks legal authority to assist drivers who received a speeding ticket or other traffic citation. We can, however, help translate the letter and explain the situation. Prompt payment of the fines is highly recommended. The U.S. Army in Europe vehicle registry records German traffic violations and assigns traffic points. Drivers who get 12 or more traffic points in a one-year period face a mandatory license suspension under the Army in Europe Regulations. Those caught driving on a suspended license face a five-year revocation of driving privileges.

Downloading media online

German copyright laws are strictly enforced and our community has seen a surge in demand letters from law firms for illegal downloading of protected material. Such demand letters can involve heavy fees or fines imposed on those caught downloading or uploading media in violation of German copyright laws. If you receive one, contact the Law Center prior to responding. The best practice is not to engage in any illegal downloading or uploading of copyrighted materials.

Tax-free privileges

The SOFA affords some very nice tax breaks to personnel under orders to be in Germany. Sharing these tax breaks with non-SOFA protected persons are strictly prohibited. Violations can cost a person their SOFA privileges, or worse, result in federal criminal convictions. Specifically, misuse of the fuel ration system or VAT exemption can create trouble very quickly. Also, anything acquired under the pro-visions of the SOFA at the Exchange, commissary or tax-exempt purchases made with a VAT form, are for personal use and are not allowed to be used in private business ventures. Don’t allow landlords to use VAT forms to repair or improve their property. Those interested in getting involved in a personal business while overseas under the SOFA are highly encouraged to consult Family and MWR’s Home-Based Business (HBB) office.


Marriage and divorce in Germany can be quite different than the U.S. Marriage or divorce documents are not easily transferred or mutually applied between German authorities and various states in the U.S. Any divorce, whether overseas or back in the U.S., can be very complicated and could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for alimony, child support, division of marital assets, and legal fees. Former spouses could seek a court order for money, call your commander to enforce a separation agreement, or any obligation under military regulations to support families. Since the Law Center cannot represent personnel in divorces, you will have to seek services from a German attorney.

Renting off-post quarters

Personnel must check-in at the Housing Services Office upon arrival in Stuttgart and keep them informed of their housing search status at all times. Those residing off-post must be thorough and businesslike when establishing a contract and moving in. Landlord-tenant laws are very different in Germany and are, in many ways, pro-landlord. Keep all meetings with the landlord, at least the initial ones, strictly businesslike.

One key difference between U.S. landlord-tenant law and Germany landlord-tenant law is that you can form an oral contract to rent property in Germany. This means you must watch what you say to a prospective landlord or realtor when discussing a property. Once you find a place, note all preexisting damage on the inspection sheet provided by the Housing Office. Don’t rely on anyone else to note deficiencies. Anything you don’t annotate on your initial inspection will be attributed to you when the time arrives for your departure date. You’ll be personally responsible for repairs that aren’t notated on the initial inspection sheet. You can pay for the repairs out your own pocket or from your security deposit.

It is critical to remember that renting property is a business transaction. Also, be careful when dealing with realtors. Realtors technically work for the potential renter seeking the property, but they are very familiar with the local landlords. Landlords often have more than one rental property and if their tenants are Americans, new tenants rotate through their properties every few years. This reality means realtors often side with the landlord during landlord-tenant disputes. Additionally, there may be hefty realtor fees associated with a property. In almost all cases, realtor fees are not reimbursable. Check with the Housing Office before contacting a realtor.

Your tour in Germany can be a very enjoyable experience; make the most of it by staying out of legal trouble. Know and respect the laws and our German hosts.