SAN DIEGO, February 21, 2013 – Most teenagers dream of the day when they turn 18 years old and don’t have to let their parents control their lives. I could say at this point “Dream on!” But it’s true that in the eyes of the law, you become an adult when you turn 18.
So what does this mean, exactly? What does in mean to be legally “free” from your parents? And is there any way to make this happen before you turn 18? Can you divorce your own parents?
Sort of. The legal term for becoming an adult before you turn 18 years old is emancipation. An emancipated individual has no legal parents or guardian. The parents are no longer responsible for any actions or choices you make, and they no longer have any obligation to take care of you: provide you a home, food, clothing, or an education. The legal consequences of emancipation truly make you an adult, with all of the responsibilities that come with it.
Fifteen-year-old actress Ariel Winter from the ABC TV comedy Modern Family is in the midst of seeking emancipation from her parents, Glenn and Chrisoula Workman, but not for career reasons. Winter has claimed that her mother is abusive. Chrisoula Workman denies it, and is fighting her daughter’s request, saying she caught her daughter in bed with her 18-year-old boyfriend and says she just wants to be free to continue having an adult sexual relationship with him without consequences.
Winter is currently in the temporary custody of an older sister while this goes through the legal system.
It will be a tough call for the courts. Winter is reportedly a good student and makes plenty of money to support herself from acting. But can a 14-year-old really make good decisions completely on her own while on the outs from her parents? And are her reasons for emancipation legitimate? This has disaster written all over it.
Actor Macaulay Culkin is among many young actors who sought emancipation from his parents due to conflicts about control of his career and earnings. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Drew Barrymore, Macaulay Culkin, and Corey Feldman all won emancipation from their parents. It’s worth noting all three of these actors had serious problems with bad behavior including substance abuse, and all three have done time in rehab. For the record, all three are clean and sober today.
But most teens don’t go down this road for the happiest of reasons. They pursue emancipation because something is seriously wrong. They may be victims of child abuse. They may be subjected to domestic violence in the home, or be living with substance abusing parents. Or they may be neglected, left alone or without food, clothing or shelter for days, weeks, or even months at a time.
Running away or getting kicked out doesn’t mean a minor is legally emancipated. Their parents are still responsible for their actions, and continue to have authority over decisions like where they attend school and medical treatment.
A teenager becomes emancipated either by a court order if your state has an emancipation law such as California, Illinois, Michigan, and numerous others; or when certain situations occur.
In states with emancipation laws, you will have to show the court that you can live on your own, can support yourself and pay your bills, and that your parents do not claim you as a dependent on their taxes. Your lifestyle will be reviewed to help determine whether you are living as an emancipated person or not.
So what happens if your state doesn’t have an emancipation law? There are a few other ways to be legally declared an adult before you are 18. Mind you, I don’t necessarily recommend them. If you join the military or get married, you are automatically considered independent of your parents. This is true whether your state has emancipation laws or not.
In a famous case in Florida 20 years ago, an 11-year-old boy named Gregory K won a court order terminating his abusive mother’s parental rights so he could clear the way for an adoption by his foster parents. Usually the state files this type of lawsuit, but in this case Gregory and his lawyer made the request of the court, asking for a “divorce” from his parents. He didn’t actually want to be emancipated, but wanted his birth mother’s parental rights taken away.
This case mainly affects foster kids, who are sometimes in a legal limbo. Today, if kids can’t return home or be placed with relatives, alternative permanent homes are sought. Public and private agencies are taking legal action toward terminating parents′ rights when it makes sense and is in a minor’s best long term interests.
But whatever the circumstances for a teenager to seek emancipation, it’s a serious matter. It doesn’t happen because you’re mad about having your iPhone taken away because you didn’t do your homework.
Once you are emancipated, you will still be unable to vote, sign a contract or buy property, or legally consume alcohol. But you can live independently while you′re 16 and 17.
But as any adult will tell you, don’t be in such a hurry. There is plenty of time where you should take full advantage of the safety net, security and guidance responsible parent provide you to get ready for all of the expected and unexpected consequences of life. And sorry to say, there is no “reverse” emancipation when times get tough.
Myra Chack Fleischer serves as Lead Counsel for Fleischer & Ravreby in Carlsbad, California with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in Communities Digital News. Follow Myra on Twitter: @LawyerMyra.
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