In the pregnancy help center/clinic setting, there are times when minors seeking our assistance may have questions about emancipation from their parents. Answers to questions regarding obtaining medical care, child support, and material assistance many times depend upon whether or not the client/patient is an emancipated minor. A referral to an attorney for legal advice and to the county courthouse for procedural information would be appropriate in such cases because each state handles the issue differently.
A general understanding of the meaning of emancipation for a minor is important in this discussion. The word emancipation literally means, "to become free from the restraint, control, or power of another." As it relates to a minor, it refers to the point at which a minor becomes self-supporting, assumes adult responsibility for his or her welfare, and is no longer under the care or responsibility of his or her parents.
Legally, parents are responsible for their children until they reach the "age of majority" which is the age of 18 in the United States. Parents are required to feed, clothe, educate, and act in their children's best interest. Once the child reaches the age of majority, the minor's parents are no longer responsible for that child. However, an "emancipated" minor is freed from parental custody and control and essentially becomes an "adult" in many ways.
Emancipation can occur by a number of means:
Attaining Age of Majority. The most common way to become emancipated is that the child naturally turns 18 years of age. When a person turns 18, he or she is considered to have "full legal capacity." This means that the person can make all legal decisions for himself or herself unless there is some reason other than age that legally prohibits him or her from making such decisions, such as mental inability. As soon as an individual turns 18, he or she legally becomes an adult and is automatically emancipated from parental custody and control.
Enlisting in Military. In some states, enlisting in the military is enough to allow a minor to make many decisions on his or her own. However, parental consent is required before a minor may enlist in any military service, and there are minimum age requirements that a minor must meet before enlisting.
Getting Married. In some states, marriage is sufficient to allow a minor to make many decisions on his or her own. However, in order to get married, a minor must normally obtain the consent from either one or both parents or a guardian. Becoming pregnant and delivering a child does not automatically emancipate a minor.
Petition Court. A minor may become emancipated by filing a petition for emancipation in their state court. Only the minor may petition the court. Parents cannot petition the court to emancipate their child. Only about half the states have statutory laws regarding emancipation. States with no statutory provision or procedures for minors to apply for emancipation may still determine or confirm that minors have been emancipated. For laws specific to your state, visit the following legal website: www.law.cornell.edu/topics/Table_Emancipation.htm
Generally, under these procedures, a minor files a petition with the court and provides the necessary information (such as proof of financial independence, adequate housing arrangements, and sufficient maturity) for the court to determine that such a confirmation of emancipation from parental care and control is in the best interests of the minor. The key issue for the court is to determine if it is in the "best interests" of the child to be emancipated.
In most states, a minor must be at least 16 years old before they can petition a court for emancipation. In California, a minor must be at least 14 to petition its courts for emancipation.
The minor must prove to the judge that it is in her/his best interest to be emancipated. The judge will commonly evaluate the following criteria in determining whether it is in the minor's best interest:
Is the minor able to support himself/herself financially?
What is the source of the minor's income?
Is the minor currently living apart from his/her parents?
Is the minor's housing arrangement adequate?
Is the minor attending school?
Is the minor mature and able to make adult decisions?
Do the parents consent to the emancipation?
Emancipation is a serious step for a young person to take, and a judge will grant it only if it is truly in the young person's best interest. Pregnancy help centers/clinics should be ready to refer their clients/patients to competent legal counsel in their respective states for specific answers to the questions and issues raised by each client/patient regarding emancipation.
Anne O'Connor is the general counsel for National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA). For more information, go to www.nifla.org.