Every society must develop an age at which an individual within the society is considered an “adult,” namely fully responsible for the obligations that the society places on its mature members and capable of enjoying the benefits and rights conferred upon the fully integrated members of the society.
In our time, the age at which the “child” legally becomes an adult is termed the age of majority.
The age of majority is the threshold of adulthood in law. It is the chronological moment when a child legally ceases to be considered a minor. After attaining the age of majority, a person assumes control over their persons, actions and decisions. S/he terminates the legal control and legal responsibilities of parents or guardian.
The age of majority is a legally fixed age which may differ depending on the jurisdiction. It is vital to note that the age of majority may not necessarily correspond to actual mental or physical maturity of an individual. This article shall provide the law in California and discuss some of the ramifications of becoming an adult legally.
In California the law altered the law of majority from twenty one to eighteen in 1972. The law is as follows:
Minors – Age of Majority – California (a) The use of or reference to the words “age of majority,” “age of minority,” “adult,” “minor,” or words of similar intent in any instrument, order, transfer, or governmental communication made in this state: (1) Before March 4, 1972, makes reference to individuals 21 years of age and older, or younger than 21 years of age. (2) On or after March 4, 1972, makes reference to individuals 18 years of age and older, or younger than 18 years of age. (b) Nothing in subdivision (a) or in Chapter 1748 of the Statutes of 1971 prevents amendment of any court order, will, trust, contract, transfer, or instrument to refer to the 18-year-old age of majority if the court order, will, trust, contract, transfer, or instrument satisfies all of the following conditions: (1) It was in existence on March 4, 1972. (2) It is subject to amendment by law, and amendment is allowable or not prohibited by its terms. (3) It is otherwise subject to the laws of this state.
California does provide minors certain limited rights, such as the right to contract in certain circumstances, the ability to sue a guardian or to consent to certain medical treatment. See California Family Code Division 11, Part 1, § 6502 which deals with Age of Majority 18 (Fam. §6500) Emancipation of minor as young as 14, (Fam. §7120), or if married or in military (Fam. §7002) or to enter into contracts (Fam. §6700). Note that a minor cannot give a delegation of power, or make a contract relating to real property or personal property not in immediate possession or control of the minor (Fam. §6701); Ability to Sue Guardian (Fam. §6601); Consent to Medical Treatment-a minor may consent if 15 years or older, living apart from parents, and managing own finances (§6922).
Our article on Emancipation of Minors describes the means and circumstances in which a person still under the age of eighteen may enjoy certain rights as an adult.
It is hard to overemphasize the power that accrues once one achieves majority. Perhaps an example will make it clear. Our office represented parents whose seventeen year old daughter was endangering herself by hanging around with friends who not only took drugs but engaged in very high risk stunts, from racing their motorcycles on freeways to engaging in planned fights by going into hostile neighborhoods. The parents, in desperation, finally restricted her to not going out at night and had the legal right to do so since she was a minor. As her eighteenth birthday approached, I had to tell them that if they did not let her leave the home when she wished, they would be guilty of a crime: kidnapping or false imprisonment. Once she attained eighteen they could close the family home to her…but could not keep her there against her will.
Likewise, while previously they could control her finances, she was thereafter free to spend whatever money she had just as she wished. (A trust could have restricted her access but her grandparents had left money to her outright at the age of majority.) From the point of view of the law, they had no more right to control her actions or her finances than any other person in the street. It is true that if she was incompetent, they could have sought to appoint a guardian. However, competency simply means she had sufficient competence to comprehend reality and take care of her necessities of life. You are not incompetent because you engage in high risk behavior or disagree with your parents.
The right to live as you chose; to make your own mistakes; to control all aspects of your life so long as you do not break the law, all accrue at the age of eighteen, though some limits may still be imposed by statute, such as the right to smoke or run for Congress which have age limits set in the statutes.
One commentator put it well: the age of eighteen in California becomes the age of individual freedom for the individual. You become a full-fledged citizen with the right to make your own choices - and, consequently, pay the consequences for your own mistakes.