Pursuing emancipation as a minor is not something to undertake lightly. When a minor is emancipated, he basically becomes a legal adult – with some restrictions. Emancipation benefits include being able to enter into a legally binding contract, being able to make his own decisions regarding medical care and being able to establish his own household.
However, a major disadvantage of emancipation is that the minor can no longer expect to be supported by his parents, which can mean subjecting himself to severe financial hardship. Before pursuing emancipation, it is important that a minor and the close adults in his life consider the pros and cons of emancipation carefully. Emancipation has a ripple effect on the entire family; it terminates any existing child custody and child support orders concerning the minor.
Why Pursue Emancipation?
There are a variety of reasons why a minor would pursue emancipation, including:
- The desire to enroll in the school of her choice.
- The need to manage her own finances.
- The desire to manage her own career.
- The need to leave an abusive household.
- Making medical decisions for herself.
- Taking legal action.
- Accessing public benefits.
No matter why a minor pursues emancipation, the result is the same: She gains the legal agency typically reserved for people over age 18. For a minor who has started her career early and finds herself bringing in large sums of money, becoming legally emancipated enables her to manage her own money or hire professionals of her choosing to manage it for her. It also permits her to shape her own career by pursuing and turning down business opportunities as she chooses.
Read More: Child Support & Emancipation Laws
Conditions on Minors Seeking Emancipation
Each state imposes specific conditions for minors seeking emancipation. For example, Vermont courts will only emancipate a minor if the minor can demonstrate that she is:
- Living apart from her parents.
- A high school graduate or working toward completing her high school diploma.
- Capable of managing her own financial affairs.
- Capable of managing her own personal affairs.
- Not a ward of the state or currently incarcerated in a youth correctional facility.
In contrast, West Virginia courts require only that a minor seeking emancipation show that she can provide for herself and can make decisions for herself.
Understanding Emancipation Benefits
The primary benefit of emancipation is legal autonomy regarding one’s financial and personal affairs. This legal autonomy grants the minor the right to make certain life-changing decisions, like the decision to enroll in a specific private school or the decision to consent to medical treatment. Although the rights and privileges that come with emancipation vary from state to state, general emancipation benefits include:
- The ability to get a job without working papers.
- The ability to sign legal contracts.
- The ability to manage his own finances, such as making investments and opening financial accounts.
- The ability to take legal action.
Understanding emancipation benefits also involves understanding the disadvantages of emancipation. When a minor is emancipated, his parents are no longer required to care for him in any way. This means he cannot rely on them for financial support, he cannot expect to be covered by their health insurance, he cannot rely on them to provide emotional support, and if he wants to return to their home, they are under no obligation to take him in. Additionally, he may be sued and held liable for others’ damages in court proceedings.
Emancipation State by State
The process for pursuing emancipation varies from state to state. Similarly, the specific rights and privileges granted to emancipated minors vary from state to state. In some states, emancipation is a one-size-fits-all status change and in others, it is possible for a minor to become only partially emancipated. Maryland is one state where partial emancipation is possible.
In Maryland, minors age 16 and over automatically have the legal right to make their own medical decisions, including decisions regarding pregnancy and abortion. This right exists regardless of whether the minor is legally emancipated or not. In contrast, California law states that it is illegal for unemancipated minors to obtain abortions without parental consent. In nearly all states, the following events automatically emancipate a minor:
- Enlisting in the United States military.
- Getting married.
- Turning 18.
In some states, though, emancipation is not automatic even upon reaching age 18. New Jersey is one such state. In New Jersey, an adolescent is deemed emancipated only when she can reasonably be considered to be living independently of her parents, which is not the case for many 18-year-olds. This means that New Jersey parents may be required to continue supporting their adult children financially if the children are still living with them and relying on them for support, which is often the case for recent high school graduates and college students.
What Emancipation Cannot Do
Although emancipation grants a minor many of the rights that come with adulthood, it does not grant a minor every right that comes with adulthood. Certain rights, like the right to vote, are reserved for people age 18 and older regardless of their emancipation status. Other rights and privileges, like becoming a licensed driver and being able to purchase a firearm, are also usually restricted solely by age and cannot be obtained through emancipation.
Every state maintains its own restrictions related to emancipation. Generally, an emancipated minor cannot take certain age-restricted actions until reaching the age specified by the restrictions. For example, they cannot:
- Buy and drink alcohol.
- Get married without parental consent.
- Drop out of school.
- Become a licensed driver.
- Gamble in casinos and lotteries.
Weighing Pros and Cons of Emancipation
There are many pros and cons of emancipation. In most states, emancipation is only granted by the courts. When deciding whether or not to approve a petition for emancipation, a judge must determine whether emancipation is in the minor’s best interest. Factors to consider when determining the minor’s best interest include:
- Any history of domestic violence in the minor’s home.
- The minor’s maturity.
- The minor’s capacity to provide for herself financially.
- Whether the minor has established her own household.
- The circumstances driving the minor to seek emancipation.
To help the court weigh the pros and cons of emancipation, the minor can provide evidence in her petition that supports her desire to be emancipated. This evidence may include copies of her medical records showing that she is facing a life-threatening condition and that emancipation would grant her access to potentially life-saving treatment, or documents from Child Protective Services showing that she resides in an unsafe home and that emancipation will protect her from harm. In some states, such as Maryland, a minor cannot petition the court on her own. In these states, an adult with the authority to petition for emancipation on her behalf, such as a representative of Child Protective Services, must do so.
The court considers the disadvantages of emancipation along with all potential emancipation benefits. For example, the court may consider whether emancipating a minor means she will have to rely on public benefits or whether she is mature enough to manage her own personal affairs. In cases where it is not in the minor’s best interest to be emancipated, the court may deny the petition.