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How Long Do Parents' Legal Obligations to Their Children Continue?

While parents have the right to make important decisions about their children's lives, they also have certain legal duties. Parents are legally required to support their minor children. Supporting your kids includes providing food, clothing, shelter, and basic care. Failing to provide for your kids can lead to neglect or abuse charges in most states.

Parental obligations typically end when a child reaches the age of majority, which is 18 years old in most states. However, you may wish to check your state's legal ages laws to see if they vary from this standard. Parents who have children with disabilities may have their parental obligations last beyond the age of majority. There are also certain circumstances in which such obligations can be terminated prematurely.

For cultural reasons, many parents choose to continue to support their children after the age of majority, such as while the child attends college. The federal government expects parents to contribute to their children's education and calculates financial aid based on parental income. Federal financial aid doesn't consider a parent who doesn't want to pay for college, even if the student no longer lives at home, to be a sufficient reason to consider the student independent.

Emancipation of Minors

One way parental obligations can be terminated before the age of majority is by emancipation. Emancipation is the legal process that allows a minor to assume responsibility for his or her welfare. When a child becomes emancipated, his or her parents are no longer legally obligated to support the child.

In some states, emancipation is automatic in certain circumstances, even though the minor is under the age of majority. For example, joining the armed forces or getting married may lead to emancipation. If your child marries or joins the military, you would no longer be legally responsible for him or her.

Minors seeking emancipation must file a petition with the court and meet certain state-specific criteria. When making an emancipation determination, courts often consider the best interests of the child and his or her level of maturity. If you’re a minor interested in emancipation, you should consult with a qualified family law attorney.

Divorce and Parental Obligations

Parental duties don't end with divorce. In many states, divorced parents are required to pay child support in order to cover their children's basic needs. Generally, child support payments continue until the child reaches the age of majority. However, in certain circumstances, support obligations can be modified or even prematurely terminated.

To modify a child support arrangement, a parent generally must show that his or her financial circumstances have changed and that paying the previously ordered amount is no longer possible. Losing your job, becoming seriously injured, suffering a drop in income, or a change in marital status or number of children, can all make child support modification necessary. If your life circumstances change, you may want to petition the court for a change in your child support obligation. If so, consult with an experienced child support attorney.

Stepparents

Stepparents have no legal duty to provide for stepchildren, unless the stepparent legally adopts his or her stepchild. For more information, read the Stepparent Adoption FAQs article.

Next Steps
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