In the 1984 movie, Irreconcilable Differences, actress Drew Barrymore played a nine-year-old girl who divorced her parents. While it may seem like a case of Hollywood fiction, children can, and do, file to divorce their parents. What does it take for a child to become emancipated, and what are the consequences to both parent and child?
What Is Emancipation?
Emancipation is the legal term for when a child becomes free of his parents, and happens either when the child reaches the age of legal majority (which varies amongst states), or when he is granted an order of emancipation from the court. Most courts will not consider emancipation unless the minor is at least 16 years of age, although some states, like California, allow it as young as 14 years of age.
Age of Emancipation
The legal age of majority is typically 18, or when the child graduates from high school, whichever occurs later. This is the age when you can legally move out. In the case of a child divorcing his parents, the child is seeking to speed up the process of emancipation by severing all ties to his parents prior to reaching the age of majority.
Termination of Parental Obligations
When a child becomes emancipated, his parents are no longer obligated to provide him with food, shelter, clothing or care; this includes terminating the obligation to pay child support. They are also no longer responsible for any acts of wrongdoing the child may commit. Instead, the child becomes solely responsible for providing for his basic needs.
What Emancipated Minors Can Do
When a child divorces his parents he has, with a few exceptions, all the rights and responsibilities of an adult. An emancipated minor may:
- Enter into legally binding contracts
- Work and keep all of the earnings (although work restrictions under child labor laws may still apply)
- Make medical decisions
- Obtain an apartment
- File a lawsuit, or be sued in court
- Select the school they will attend
What Emancipated Minors Cannot Do
If the court grants an order of emancipation, there are still certain things that the emancipated minor may not do, even though they are considered a legal adult in the eyes of the law. An emancipated minor may not:
- Drive (unless they've reached the legal driving age in their state)
- Drop out of high school without showing they're working to obtain a GED
- Marry without parental consent, if the child hasn't reached the age where consent is no longer required
Becoming an Emancipated Minor
There are three ways a minor may become emancipated - getting married, joining the military, or with court permission.
Marriage usually results in the minor's emancipation. However, a minor typically cannot marry without parental consent until the age of 18. Some states, including Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, and Oklahoma, allow a minor who is pregnant or already has a child to marry without parental consent, although court approval may be required.
Enlistment in the military may also be sufficient in some states to emancipate a minor. However, like in marriage, enlistment requires parental consent if a child is under the age of 18. The military also requires a high school diploma, which most minors will not yet have received. In addition, the military has minimum age requirements that may prohibit a minor's enlistment even with parental consent.
A minor may petition the court seeking to divorce his parents. This is a legal proceeding that will require evidence production and testimony by both sides. The minor's parents or legal guardians must be notified of the proceedings.
Before granting an emancipation order, the court will consider whether emancipation is in the child's best interests. Some of the factors the court may consider include:
- The minor's age and maturity level
- The minor's mental, emotional and physical health
- Whether the minor has a means of financial support
- Whether the minor has suitable living arrangements, or has a means of obtaining suitable arrangements
- Whether the parents consent
- Reasons for seeking emancipation, for example abandonment or severe abuse by the parents, or for financial reasons
Emancipation laws vary from state to state. There may be differences on the age of legal majority, the process for becoming emancipated through the court, reasons why it may be granted and the rights and responsibilities of child and parents following a grant of emancipation. It is therefore important to review the laws in your state and consult with a licensed attorney prior to moving forward with legal proceedings.
A Big Leap
The decision to divorce your parents is one that should not be entered into lightly. Becoming wholly responsible for yourself as a teenager could be daunting, and at the very least will likely have a negative impact on your social life - while your friends are out having fun, you'll be busy working in order to support yourself.
Likewise, if you are a parent whose child is seeking a divorce, you should take their concerns seriously. Sit down and talk to your child, preferably with the help of a therapist, counselor or trusted clergy person, to get to the root of the problem and try to resolve the differences, and work toward a healthy solution.