Emancipation is the act of freeing a person from the control of an authority figure. In most states, a child is classed as a minor and exists under the authority and rules of their parents or legal guardians. These parents have both legal and ethical responsibilities to bring up their children at least until the child has reached the age of majority.

What are the pros & cons of emancipation?

It is possible and sometimes desirable for some minors to become emancipated before reaching the given age. This may sound exciting to minors who have convinced themselves that they would be better off living freely elsewhere, yet it needs to be approached with a clear idea of what it means to be independent. Once emancipated, the minor legally becomes an adult with the rights and responsibilities of an adult. However, the newly emancipated minor does not have right to vote or get a driver’s license until reaching the legal age to do so, and is likewise prohibited from buying or drinking alcohol.

For a parent, the main benefit is the end of a responsibility to financially support the child, although depending on the state, there are some circumstances when that responsibility will remain. For the emancipated minor, this lack of a financial cushion can be a significant drawback, particularly when the ability to earn a living is limited. The reality of having to buy clothes, find food and pay bills may not be as exciting as the dream of freedom. However, the most obvious benefits for the emancipated minor are: the ability to enter into legal contracts, decide on their own education needs and medical care, and decide how to spend their own money.

What criteria need to be met for emancipation?

A minor who has not obtained parental permission to be emancipated must follow a court procedure. In most states, the emancipation procedure is commenced by the minor filing a petition setting out reasons why it is in their best interests that the court grants emancipation. The minor must persuade a judge that they are financially ready and able to take care of themselves, as well as demonstrate their maturity and an ability to make sound decisions.

If the minor is a victim of abuse, it is in their best interests to be removed from the home and placed with a willing guardian for the duration of the court process. A minor who is seeking emancipation because they object to their parents’ rules must convince a court that it is in their best interests not to have to live under these rules. A court is unlikely to be convinced by the child’s dislike of a nightly curfew or objection to performing reasonable household chores.

Circumstances that qualify one for emancipation without going down the court route include:

  • Getting married. A minor who gets married must comply with state marriage requirements, which may include obtaining parental consent. In most states, once married, the minor will be considered emancipated.
  • Joining the United States Armed Forces. The minor may automatically be declared emancipated without the involvement of the court.
  • A minor may also be emancipated when their parents are deceased or have abandoned them.

How does one emancipate themselves?

The rules and procedures for emancipation differ from state to state. In some states, the minor is required to go through a protracted court process in order to be emancipated. This will involve a hearing where substantial evidence will be heard of the circumstances and conduct of the child and the parents that has led to a request for emancipation.

If the court decides that emancipation is in the best interests of the child, the court will issue a Declaration of Emancipation. This document can be used by the newly emancipated minor in situations that would normally require parental consent, such as for medical treatment or attending schools.

Most courts charge a filing fee of up to $200 and require the minor to notify the parent or guardian of the legal action. The petition can be filed without the involvement of a legal professional, but it is preferable for the minor to seek guidance from a family law attorney with experience in the emancipation process.

Emancipation is not a speedy process and the child seeking emancipation does not have to stay at home with the parent during the case. In 2012, the then-14-year-old Modern Family actress, Ariel Winter, was removed from her mother’s home following allegations of emotional and physical abuse, and placed under the guardianship of her 34-year-old sister. In May 2015, after a three-year-long custody battle, Ariel was officially declared emancipated.

Are there alternatives to emancipation?

Emancipation is not a process to be taken lightly, and courts will hesitate to make a declaration of emancipation if there are other alternatives.

A minor who is suffering from physical or emotional abuse may be ordered removed from the home and placed in temporary or permanent foster care. In some situations, a judge may even order parents to attend parenting classes.

Minors who are considering seeking emancipation as a way to escape their parents’ reasonable rules may wish to consider other alternatives, such as:

  • Moving in with other responsible and willing relatives
  • Consulting a social worker or a school counsellor
  • Seeking professional counselling for themselves and their parents
  • Obtaining parental consent to live alone and apart from the family

The day-to-day reality of living as an independent adult can be overwhelming at any age. A minor should carefully consider other alternatives before taking any legal steps toward emancipation.