Emancipation is the legal process through which a minor is released from the care and responsibility of a parent or legal guardian. In the most basic sense, emancipation is how a minor becomes a legal adult. Usually, a minor is automatically emancipated when he turns 18, the age of majority in most of the United States. In a few states, a young adult reaches the age of majority when he graduates from high school or when he turns 21. However, there are circumstances under which it is in the minor’s best interest to become a legal adult sooner. When one or more of these circumstances apply, he can become a legal adult through the process of emancipation.
Emancipating a minor requires the parent or minor to file a Petition for Emancipation with the local family court.
Understanding Child Emancipation
Many parents are not well-versed in child emancipation and find themselves asking questions like:
- Can a 17-year-old leave home legally?
- Can a parent emancipate a child?
- Can a parent kick a child out of the house at 17?
- How does the court define emancipation?
Child emancipation can be a complex topic, and the laws governing it vary from state to state. In most states, the youngest a minor can be to be legally emancipated is 16. However, some states have lower limits. One notable example is California, where a minor can be as young as 14 when emancipated.
Minors seek emancipation for a variety of reasons, including:
- Leaving abusive households.
- Making their own healthcare decisions.
- Managing their own money.
There are also specific events that automatically emancipate a minor. With these events, the minor’s parent must grant permission for the minor to complete them, so the parent is required to grant permission for the minor to be emancipated in an indirect way. Events that automatically emancipate a minor are:
- Enlisting in the United States military – individual must be at least 17 years old.
The minimum age at which a minor can marry varies from state to state and even within some states, and the legal marriage age for boys is sometimes different from the legal marriage age for girls. In many states, the minimum age is 16, but some, like Colorado and Arkansas, have no minimum legal marriage age. Only two states, Delaware and New Jersey, prohibit child marriages in all circumstances.
Obtaining Emancipation Papers
When a minor is not emancipated through marriage or enlistment in the military, he can seek emancipation through court approval. This process varies from state to state, but in every state, involves filing a petition for emancipation with the court and demonstrating that emancipation is in the minor’s best interest.
You can obtain emancipation documents from your local family court, which is typically the circuit court of the county where the minor resides. Emancipation paperwork varies slightly from state to state. For example, in Louisiana, a Petition for Emancipation must include:
- The minor’s name, age and current address.
- A list of all of the minor’s current known assets and their locations.
- The minor’s parents’ names and addresses, if known.
- The name and address of the minor’s tutors, if known.
- Specific reasons why the minor or parent is seeking emancipation.
- If the minor or parent is seeking a limited judicial emancipation, the specific adult rights that are being sought.
Other states require additional information. In Georgia, a Petition for Emancipation must include the names of all adults who are aware of the minor’s circumstances, like teachers, case workers or school guidance counselors.
The Emancipation Process
Except for cases where the minor is automatically emancipated through marriage or enlistment, the emancipation process begins with the minor or the parent filing a Petition for Emancipation.
For example, in Connecticut, a minor cannot be emancipated before the age of 16. To become emancipated, he must meet at least one of these circumstances:
- He must be enlisted in the United States military.
- He must be legally married.
- He must be living apart from his parents and financially independent.
- The court must determine that emancipation is in his best interests and if applicable, his child’s, best interest.
Having a baby does not automatically emancipate a minor. This is a common misconception. Although a teenage parent may seek emancipation to enable her to make choices and take actions that benefit her child, simply being a parent in itself is not grounds for emancipation.
The eligible minor files a Petition for Emancipation form with the court. He can do this with a lawyer’s help or on his own. If the minor cannot afford a lawyer, the court may appoint one for him. Once the petition is filed, the court schedules a hearing before a judge. During this hearing, the minor presents his reasons for seeking emancipation and the judge determines whether granting one is in his best interest.
To determine whether emancipation is in the minor’s best interest, the court considers a variety of factors, including:
- The minor’s ability to support herself financially.
- The minor’s goals and plans for life after being emancipated.
- The potential harm the minor would face if emancipation is not granted.
- The minor’s history of decision-making for herself.
- Where the minor currently lives.
- The minor’s maturity level.
In most states, the filing fee to complete emancipation is between $150 and $200. Most states also require that the minor’s parents or legal guardians be notified of the emancipation petition. A parent may object to her child’s emancipation, and what happens when a parent objects depends on the state where it occurs. In Illinois, a parent’s objection ends the emancipation process and the minor remains under her care. In Michigan, the court considers a parent’s objection, but this does not automatically end the process.
If the court approves the emancipation, it issues a declaration of emancipation. The minor must provide copies of this document to landlords, doctors, school admissions personnel and other similar parties when exercising his adult rights.
After a Minor Is Emancipated
Although an emancipated minor may take certain actions that are typically reserved for adults, emancipation does not grant a minor all the same rights as adults. Notably, an emancipated minor cannot purchase alcohol or tobacco; they must wait until age 21 to buy alcohol and their state's legal age for purchasing tobacco and tobacco products. Emancipated minors also cannot vote. In many states, emancipation does not grant a minor the right to drop out of school before the legal age for doing so or to get married without parental consent before reaching the actual age of majority. However, there are some states where an emancipated minor can take these actions, like Connecticut. Any minor considering seeking emancipation should research his state’s specific laws about emancipated minors’ rights.
In all states, an emancipated minor can:
- Enroll in school, whether high school, vocational or technical school, or college.
- Enter legally binding contracts.
- Become employed and keep the income she earns.
- Hire a lawyer to handle her legal needs.
- Make her own healthcare decisions.
- Make substantial purchases, like buying a home.
- File lawsuits and be named as a party in lawsuits.
It is extremely rare for an emancipation to be reversed. Once a minor is emancipated, she is legally an adult.