Emancipation of Minors

The ins and outs of minor emancipation -- what it means and how it can be obtained.

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A minor who is "emancipated" assumes most adult responsibilities before reaching the age of majority (usually 18). Emancipated minors are no longer considered to be under the care and control of parents -- instead, they take responsibility for their own care. Read on to learn about how young people can be emancipated and the kinds of responsibilities and liabilities that come with emancipation.

What Is Emancipation?

Usually, parents or legal guardians are responsible for children who haven't reached the age of majority. This age varies from state to state, but it's usually 18 or 19 (it's 21 in Puerto Rico). Until a child has reached the age of majority, parents are expected to provide them with shelter, food, and clothing. Parents can also decide where their children will live and go to school and can choose what medical care their children will receive.

If a young person under the age of majority is emancipated, the parent or guardian no longer has any say over the minor's life. An emancipated minor can keep earnings from a job, decide where to live, make his or her own medical decisions, and more.

What Emancipated Minors Can and Cannot Do

Essentially, an emancipated minor functions as an adult in society. Although specific rights vary somewhat from state to state, usually an emancipated minor can:

  • enter into legally binding contracts, including real estate purchases or apartment rentals
  • enroll in the school of his or her choice
  • sue or be sued in court
  • apply for a work permit and keep any income earned from a job, and
  • make healthcare decisions, including choices related to abortion and birth control.

Most states place some limits on what an emancipated minor can do. For example, many states don't allow emancipated minors to:

  • get married without parental consent
  • quit school
  • buy or drink alcohol, or
  • vote or get a driver's license (before the legal age at which they would ordinarily be able to do so).

How Emancipation Can Be Obtained

Eligibility can vary depending on state laws, but usually minors can obtain emancipation from parents or legal guardians by:

  • getting married
  • joining the military, or
  • obtaining a court's permission.

A few states and territories (like Louisiana and Puerto Rico) allow a fourth form of limited emancipation that requires only parental consent, not the court's permission.

Emancipation by marriage. In most states, minors automatically achieve emancipation once they get married. But in order to get married, minors must comply with state marriage requirements. States set a minimum age for marriage and often require minors to get parental consent or court approval before getting married. For example, in order to get married in California, a minor must 1) be at least 14 years old, 2) be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, and 3) appear before the court.

Emancipation by military enlistment. Minors can become emancipated by enlisting in the United States Armed Forces. But since military policies currently require enlistees to have a high school diploma or GED, most young people are at least 17 or 18 before they become emancipated through enlistment.

Emancipation by court permission. Some (not all) states allow a minor to be emancipated by court order. Usually, the minor must be at least 16 years old to do this -- although, in California, minors as young as 14 may petition the court for emancipation. The court will grant emancipation if it believes that doing so will serve the young person's best interest -- a determination that is typically based on factors such as:

  • whether the minor can be financially self-sufficient (usually through employment, as opposed to government aid or welfare)
  • whether the minor is currently living apart from parents or guardians or has made alternative living arrangements
  • whether the minor is sufficiently mature to make decisions and to function as an adult, and
  • whether the minor is going to school or has received a high school diploma.

Procedures for Judicial Emancipation

Minors who are seeking emancipation through a court order must follow the petitioning procedures that are set out by their state's law. Though the process varies from state to state, here's what the court procedure for filing an emancipation petition typically looks like.

Petition. The emancipation petition must be filed by the minor (or by an attorney on the minor's behalf). Usually, the petition includes an explanation of why the minor is seeking emancipation, information about the minor's current living situation, and evidence that the minor is (or soon will be) financially self-sufficient.

Notification of parents. In most states, minors must notify their parents or legal guardians that a petition for emancipation has been filed -- or explain to the court why they do not want to do so.

Hearing. In most cases, the court schedules a hearing where the judge asks questions and hears evidence to decide whether emancipation is in the minor's best interest.

Declaration of emancipation. If the court decides that emancipation should be ordered, it will issue a Declaration of Emancipation. The newly emancipated minor should keep copies of the declaration and give them to schools, doctors, landlords, and anyone else that would normally require parental consent before dealing with a minor.

Alternatives to Emancipation

There are many reasons why a young person might seek emancipation. Sometimes a minor is very wealthy (a child actor, for example) and seeks emancipation for financial and tax reasons. Some young people are physically or emotionally abused and want to get away from a bad home environment. Other minors feel that they just cannot get along with their parents or guardians. Emancipation is just one option in these situations. Other avenues to explore include:

  • getting help from government or private agencies
  • getting counseling for yourself or your family
  • using a mediator to discuss and resolve differences with your parents
  • living with another responsible adult, or
  • living on your own with the informal consent of your parents.

Emancipation comes with most of the responsibilities and liabilities of being an adult. If you are emancipated -- or are considering emancipation -- get educated about the law and how it will affect your daily life. 

For more information, Nolo's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law (by Shae Irving, J.D. and the editors of Nolo) includes answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the law.

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