Q. My husband is in the Air Force Reserves and his unit has been activated. He is somewhere in the Middle East. There is a mortgage payment due in October and because of the reduced salary I am not sure that I will be able to make that payment. I have heard that there is an old law on the books giving active-duty personnel some relief while they are in the military. I would appreciate if you would explain the provisions of this law.

A. In 1918, when the United States was in World War I, Congress enacted the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act of 1918. The law was forgotten until World War II, when Congress re-enacted the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 1940. Although there have been a few minor amendments to that act, for all practical purposes the 1940 law is still on the books.

To be protected under the act, a person has to be in active military service. The preamble to the 1940 act spells out its purposes:

"In order to provide for, strengthen, and expedite the national defense under the emergent conditions which are threatening the peace and security of the United States and to enable the United States the more successfully to fulfill the requirements of the national defense, provision is hereby made to suspend enforcement of civil liabilities, in certain cases, of persons in the military service of the United States in order to enable such persons to devote their entire energy to the defense needs of the nation ... ."

Remember, our nation was just going into World War II and Congress wanted to assure that those people who were serving in the military could devote their time to the military activities rather than having to worry about problems back home.

There are a number of protections available under the act. Here are some of the most important aspects of the law:

Under normal circumstances, if a person has been sued in a court, whether state, federal or local, and if that defendant has not filed an appropriate answer, the suing party can obtain a default judgment. However, before the plaintiff can obtain such a judgment, the plaintiff must file an affidavit in court indicating that the defendant is not in military service.

If the affidavit turns out to be false, the defendant against whom the default judgment was entered has the right, not later than 90 days after termination of the military service, to have the case reopened and the default judgment set aside, on the condition, of course, that the defendant has a meritorious or legal defense to the lawsuit.

If a person is in active military service and there is a lawsuit pending in court, the court has the authority to put a hold on a lawsuit, legally known as a stay, unless "in the opinion of the court, the ability of plaintiff to prosecute the action or the defendant to conduct his defense is not materially affected by reason of his military service." In other words, the court will not automatically stay the lawsuit, but the burden is on the active military person to demonstrate that military service would interfere with the progress of the litigation.

With respect to your question about mortgage payments, the law specifically states that "no obligation or liability bearing interest at a rate in excess of six {percent} ... incurred by a person in military service prior to his entry into such service shall, during any part of the period of military service ... bear interest at a rate in excess of six {percent} ... . "

If you can demonstrate that because your husband is in active military service your ability to make the monthly mortgage payments is affected, then the court has the authority to limit your mortgage payment interest rate to 6 percent -- but only while your husband is on active military duty. Hopefully lenders will cooperate and voluntarily reduce the mortgage payment rate to 6 percent while the mortgage borrower is in the military. But if the lender is not willing make a voluntary agreement, you do have court protection if you can demonstrate that you would have trouble making the mortgage payments.

I strongly suggest that you immediately advise your mortgage lender of the circumstances and determine what the lender's position will be with respect to your future mortgage payments. If you reach agreement with the lender that is satisfactory to you, make sure that this agreement is in writing and signed by the lender.

It should also be noted that this law applies to all obligations -- such as credit card bills -- and is not limited to mortgage payments.

It is interesting in 1990 to look back to 1940. My understanding of the legislative history of the 6 percent cap on interest rates is that in 1940 interest rates were only at about a 4 percent level.

Thus, Congress was trying to protect the military borrower while at the same time giving the mortgage lender some flexibility in the event of rising interest rates. Obviously, Congress did not amend that law since 1940, and today the interest rate of 6 percent is clearly well below current mortgage interest rates nationwide.

Although the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 1940 is not a new law, most lenders and lawyers are now only beginning to understand its impact. Indeed, Congress also is struggling with the interpretation -- and the possible amendment -- of this new law in light of the Iraqi crisis.

I suggest that you contact your own counsel for more specific information. Your husband should also be able to get some basic guidance from the legal affairs department in his military unit.

Benny L. Kass is a Washington attorney. For a free copy of the booklet "A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home," send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, Suite 1100, 1050 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Readers also may send questions to him at that address.