Stuttgart Law Center
Status of Forces Agreement and Legal Status
As a newly-arrived member to our community, it is important to understand your legal status in Germany and your protections. For instance: Germans living in Germany without some nexus to the military or U.S. government are German citizens without special status. Americans living within Germany that do not have a military or U.S. government affiliation may live in Germany as legal residents if the German government has provided permission The last category are Americans travelling in Germany for less than six (6) months are considered short-term tourists.
However, personnel on military orders (whether a civilian, service member, or family member) fall into an entirely separate category and are governed by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
Understanding how the SOFA affects you as well as some basic differences in law between the U.S. and Germany will make for a more enjoyable overseas tour, and it will may prevent unpleasant and potentially costly mistakes.
NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)
The NATO 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.
You can read about the SOFA and the Supplemental Agreement at https://aepubs.army.mil/ae/public/references.asp.
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. Read on to learn about key differences between German and U.S. law and if you have questions please contact the Legal Center on Kelley Barracks. Additionally, make sure you attend the Legal in-processing brief offered weekly on Panzer Kaserne at the Central Processing Facility.
While that brand new smart phone might be an attractive incentive to get a cellphone contract, be careful. Too often, Americans sign German documents without properly reviewing them.
When considering a contract, do not sign it until you can have a German-speaking friend or someone at Army Community Service read over the documents. Do not sign the contract if you do not understand your obligations. Second, 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. If you fail to give proper written notice of termination before PCS’ing, you could be on the hook for an extra year of cellphone service, even 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.
Remember, an alternative to signing up for that fancy cellphone contract is to get a prepaid plan. That way you know exactly how much money you’re spending and can cancel at any time.
Renting Off-Post Quarters
For those who reside off-post, you must be extremely thorough and businesslike when establishing a contract and moving into the premises. 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. Do not rely on anyone else to note deficiencies. Anything you do not annotate on your initial inspection will be attributed to you when the time arrives for your departure date. You will be personally responsible for repairs that are not notated on the initial inspection sheet. You can pay for the repairs out your own pocket or from your security deposit. Although many landlords can be very friendly, it is critical to remember that renting property is a business transaction. Please note that personnel must check-in at Housing Services Office within two days of arrival in Stuttgart and keep the Housing Office informed of their housing search status at all times.
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 two to three years. This reality means realtors often take sides 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. . The bottom line: check with the housing office before contacting a realtor.
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. 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 or 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. The best practice is not to engage in any illegal downloading or uploading of copyrighted materials. The consequences are simply not worth the risk.
Those who receive a document that appears to be a legal notice concerning downloading or uploading copyrighted materials are encouraged to contact the Law Center prior to responding to the letter.
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 Value Added Tax exemption can create trouble very quickly. Also, anything acquired under the provisions 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. Do not 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 the Installation Commercial Affairs Office.
Our office sees a number of issues that could have been 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–parking in a no-parking area for instance. If someone tells you that you are parked in the wrong spot, it would behoove you to move. Our office has seen small confrontations combined with a language barrier quickly escalate, resulting in police involvement, hefty fines, and court costs.
Additionally, in the United States it is not uncommon to see someone being “flipped off” or to hear one person using vulgar language toward another in public. Such gestures and acts, while uncomfortable, are not illegal in the U.S. However, 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.”
Finally, in the United States it is also not uncommon to see someone carrying around a pocketknife. In Germany, there are restrictions on carrying certain knives. Specifically, folding, locking-blade knives, and all knives with a blade longer than 12cm (4.7 inches) are generally banned. For more information, you can visit the German government’s English translation of their weapons laws at their website www.bmjv.de. Click the top-menu link for the English page, then 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.
Carefully consider your decision to marry or divorce while in Germany. Both 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.
Your PCS tour in Germany can be a very enjoyable experience. Make the most of it by staying out of legal trouble. Know the laws. Understand how they apply to service members, civilians, and family members. Last but not least, respect our German hosts and their laws.
For more information, contact the Stuttgart Legal Assistance office at DSN 421-4152 / 2609, or Civ. 0711-729-4152 / 2609 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.