Emancipation grants a minor child the ability to make certain decisions and assume responsibilities that would normally be assigned to the minor’s legal parent or guardian. Emancipated minors are free to decide where to live, work, or go to school. They are free to control their own income and make their own medical decisions. They are also shielded from a parent or guardian’s authority, but they generally lose the right to receive their financial support (including child support obligations). However, the rights and responsibilities awarded to an emancipated minor vary by state and a judge’s discretion. Emancipation is not in the best interest of all or even most minors. Minors who would benefit from emancipation include those who would otherwise face barriers securing housing, meeting educational goals, receiving appropriate medical care, or entering into contracts.
The Emancipation Process
Individuals are naturally emancipated when they reach the age of majority (age 18 in most states). They may also become emancipated automatically in some states when they get married (underage marriage usually has its own set of state requirements) or enlist in the military. In many states, a minor who has not yet reached the age of majority may petition the court for emancipation.
A court may be hesitant to grant an emancipation petition when it is clear that the minor would rely on public benefits to support themselves.
Petitions for emancipation of a minor are usually filed in a family or probate court and may be filed by the minor, a parent or guardian, or a guardian ad litem. The emancipation process and requirements differ from state to state, but generally a minor will only be emancipated by court order when emancipation would be in their best interest.
A minor petitioning for emancipation must notify their parents or guardians of their petition in most states. A minor’s parent or guardian may object to the emancipation petition. The court will then hold a hearing during which the minor and possibly their parent or guardian or a guardian ad litem may argue and present evidence in support of their position. If the court grants the petition, it will issue a Declaration of Emancipation.
Evidence of Emancipation
To evaluate whether emancipation would be in a minor’s best interest, a judge may review the minor’s age and maturity level, their physical and mental health, their parent or guardian’s physical and mental health, their parent or guardian’s ability to provide food, shelter, and medical care, and the parent or guardian’s general care of and control over the minor. The minor may also need to meet an age requirement (usually 16 years old), demonstrate that they have already lived independently, or meet any other state law requirements.
In support of their position, a minor, their parent or guardian, or a guardian ad litem may present evidence such as a report card, a work record, or a lease agreement. They also may present witnesses such as friends, family, counselors, teachers, or employers to testify as to the minor’s ability to live independently and support themselves or the parent or guardian’s inability to provide for or control the minor. For example, parental abandonment may be evidence of implied emancipation, but evidence that a minor lives separately from their parent or guardian is probably insufficient without additional facts. The judge may ask the minor about their future goals and plans and how emancipation would affect them. Courts evaluate emancipation petitions carefully because emancipation is often irreversible.
Facts in Favor of Emancipation
A court may be more likely to grant an emancipation petition if:
The minor has secured a place to live
The minor has the ability to financially support themselves
The minor can demonstrate maturity
The minor has already been living independently
The minor’s parent or guardian does not object
In some instances, a minor may be eligible for partial emancipation. Partial emancipation declarations may be much narrower than full emancipation declarations and may grant the minor only a few rights and responsibilities. For example, a judge may partially emancipate a minor to the extent that they may decide where and how to live, but order a parent or guardian to continue financially supporting the minor.
It is difficult to become an emancipated minor. A minor petitioning for emancipation must demonstrate that emancipation is in their best interest. Furthermore, a parent or guardian typically cannot petition for a minor’s emancipation without the minor’s consent. Emancipation is not in the best interest of most minors, but it may be beneficial for certain individuals.