The law has long recognized that children under the age of 18 do not enjoy the same rights as adults—a minor may void a contract entered into before the age of majority, and often will be subject to different treatment for the commission of a crime. There are circumstances, however, where a minor may legally acquire the rights and responsibilities of an adult. Such a minor is considered to be legally “emancipated.”

The Ways a Minor Can Become Emancipated

The emancipation of a minor is governed on a state-by-state basis. Emancipation may occur automatically or by operation of law, but only in two circumstances: where the minor has enlisted in the military, or when the minor gets legally married. In all other instances, emancipation will only take place upon the filing of a petition by either a parent or the minor.

Under the laws of most states, to qualify for emancipation, a minor must:

  • Reside in the county where the petition is filed
  • Be of a state-specified minimum age
  • Understand and want to be emancipated (although some jurisdictions hold that, if a minor voluntarily resides somewhere
  • Be financially self-sufficient

Regardless of who files the petition, the judge must weigh all the evidence and make a determination as to whether emancipation is in the minor’s best interests. In establishing the minor’s best interests, the court will typically look at

  • The age of the minor
  • The ability of parents to provide basic support
  • The mental and physical welfare of all parties, should emancipation be granted

After Emancipation: The Rights and Duties of All Parties

In most instances, when the court grants emancipation, all duties owed by the parents are terminated. This includes the obligation to provide food, shelter, medical care, educational assistance and money to meet basic needs. The court may order what is known as an “implied partial emancipation,” which requires parents to ensure the physical welfare of the child, but allows the child to retain all compensation or income from any source.

Once legally emancipated, the minor has most of the rights inherent with adulthood—to enter into contracts, earn and spend wages, attend school. However, the emancipation of a minor does not confer certain rights, including the ability to purchase of possess alcohol, or obtain certain licenses.

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