Most teens count down the days until they hit that magic 18th birthday and “become an adult.” But what does that really mean? And does it always happen at age 18?
Coming of Age
The term “coming of age” is used to describe the moment a child crosses the border into adulthood. While in earlier cultures, this might have involved some emotional, physical and mental testing, in the United States, it is regarded from a legal perspective and termed the age of majority.
So, what is the age of majority in the United States? This is a matter of state law, not federal law. The 50 states do not have uniform laws regarding it. Most set the age of majority at 18, but not all. Some say 18 unless the teen is still in high school, in which case, her adulthood is postponed until graduation. Some say 19, and Mississippi draws the line at 21.
Rights and Responsibilities at Age of Majority
When a young person reaches the age of majority in his state, he is treated like an adult under state law. That means that he can legally leave home and rent an apartment. In fact, he can enter into any type of contract, and he is bound by the contracts he enters.
He can also do what he wants with his body, including donating blood or plasma or getting a tattoo. He can use the court system, bring a suit against someone or get sued. He can also be called to serve on jury duty. He can marry without parental permission, join the military without parental permission, and adopt a child or a pet.
Another effect of reaching the age of majority is being held responsible for one’s actions. Punishment of a minor who commits an offense is usually very limited. Once a minor reaches the state’s age of majority, however, he can be sent to prison if convicted of a crime.
Voting Age vs. Age of Majority
It may seem that once an individual reaches his state’s age of majority, he would have all of the rights of an adult. This is not the case. Some rights and responsibilities depend on state law, others on federal law. Those that depend on federal law are not linked to the age of majority set by states, but simply set a uniform standard.
For example, since most states establish 18 as the age of majority, it makes sense that the federal government sets this as the legal age at which a person can vote. That is the case in all states, no matter what the law is in a particular state regarding the age of majority. For example, though the age of majority in Mississippi is 21 years old, an 18-year-old can vote in any federal, state or local election.
Legal Age for Drinking and Smoking
Federal law is not consistent, however. The legal age at which a person can buy alcohol is set by federal law at 21 years old. It has not always been this way. For many years, the legal age to purchase alcohol was set by the states, and it differed from state to state. However, in 1984, Congress enacted the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, setting the legal age for drinking in all states at 21 years old.
Anyone selling alcohol to a person who is under the age of 21 is guilty of a crime. The crime is called “providing alcohol to a minor” even in states like California in which a minor reaches the age of majority at 18 years old.
In late 2019, Congress passed legislation that would raise the age at which a person can buy cigarettes, e-cigarettes and all tobacco products to 21 years old. The law went into effect in 2020.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.