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Emancipation Laws

State statutes governing the release of minors from the legal guardianship of their parents are called “emancipation laws.” Emancipation may be granted to minors who are, for example, able to prove their ability to support themselves, have made arrangements for housing, are able to make important decisions for themselves, or show sufficient maturity. This sub-section includes a concise overview of emancipation laws and the minor emancipation process, an explanation of how certain events may trigger the automatic emancipation of a minor, summaries of some of the more significant state emancipation requirements, a primer on the legal rights of children, and related information.

Minor Emancipation Basics

Parents are responsible, under the law, to feed, clothe, educate, and act in their child's best interests until they reach the "age of majority." In some states a child can petition a court to request that they be deemed an adult with the rights, privileges, and duties of adulthood. This process is called emancipation. When a child reaches the age of majority or is emancipated the parents are no longer responsible for the child and can no longer make decisions on their behalf.

In most states a minor cannot apply for emancipation before the age of 16, though this requirement is set by the state and can vary. California, for example, permits emancipation for minors as young as 14, and Mississippi has no minimum age. Not all states allow a court to grant emancipation to a minor and in those states only the automatic processes for emancipation are available.

In states that provide an emancipation process the courts generally look to ensure that emancipation is in the minor's best interests. This means that they examine whether the minor has the ability to support themselves and have the ability and maturity to make important decisions about their health and education on their own.

An emancipated minor can enter into contracts, sue, enroll in school, apply for public benefits, keep their earnings, and make healthcare related decisions. Parents can't be made to support their child financially or emotionally and child support obligations are eliminated. Minor emancipation does not convey other benefits of adulthood, like the ability to buy alcohol, vote, or marry.

Automatic Emancipation

About half of states do not provide a special emancipation procedure and instead only offer automatic emancipation upon the occurrence of one of several events. Minors who marry, join the armed forces, or reach the age of majority are automatically considered to be emancipated. The age of majority is generally 18. Marriage or entry into the armed forces before the age of 18 generally require parental consent, though this may vary from state-to-state.

Michigan provides for temporary automatic emancipation of minors when in police custody or when emergency medical care is needed, so that they can provide consent in these situations. Their emancipation ends when medical care, treatment, or incarceration is completed. Nebraska and Alabama's age of majority is 19, and the age of majority in Mississippi is 21, but emancipation can be granted by court decree in these states at any age.

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