The term “minor” is used to refer to a person who is under the age at which one legally assumes adulthood and is legally granted rights afforded to adults in society. Depending on the jurisdiction and application, this age may vary, but is usually marked at either 14, 16, 18, 20, or 21. The status of minority ends at the age of majority. The most common age of majority is age 18.
It is important to note that not all minors are considered “juveniles” in terms of criminal responsibility. As is frequently the case in the United States, these laws vary widely by state. The age of majority may not necessarily correspond to actual mental or physical maturity of an individual.
This article shall outline definitions of what a minor is and the responsibilities, rights and obligations that arise from being…and being in charge of…a minor.
Depending on the nature of the obligation or right granted, the age of majority may alter. Note that a minor, without adult supervision, cannot enter into contracts or take on other responsibilities until reaching 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, concept or statutory principle, which may differ depending on the jurisdiction. The age of majority may not necessarily correspond to actual mental or physical maturity of an individual.
In California, the following law applies:
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 Family Code Division 11, Part 1, § 6502
The following ages apply in California:
Age of Majority
18 (Fam. §6500)
Possible as early as 14 (Fam. §7120), or if married or in military (Fam. §7002). See our article on the subject.
Contracts (ability to contract?)
With some limits can do so. (Fam. §6700) He/she cannot give a delegation of power, made a contract relating to real property or personal property not in immediate possession or control of the minor (Fam. §6701)
Ability to Sue
Only via a Guardian (Fam. §6601) who must be the one to commence, defend or settle a legal action for a minor.
Consent to Medical Treatment
Minor may consent if 15 years or older, but only if living apart from parents, and managing own finances (§6922). Otherwise, age of majority.
Emancipation refers to a legal process of freeing a minor from parental control. The term may also refer to freeing the earnings/income of a child from the control of a parent. People under the age of eighteen are referred to as minors. Minors are under the control of their parents or legal guardians until they attain the age of majority. However, in special circumstances, a minor can be freed from control by their guardian before attaining majority. The circumstances in which a minor becomes emancipated are enlisting in the military and marriage and various other possible events as described in our article on that subject. In order to obtain emancipation, the minor should file a petition with the family court in the applicable jurisdiction, formally requesting emancipation and citing reasons why it is in their best interest to be emancipated. Emancipation laws vary from state to state.
Once emancipation is granted, the parent is no longer legally responsible for the acts of the child and has no further control of the child. Criteria for determining if emancipation is in the minor’s best interest vary among the states. Some of the criteria are the minor has financial independence, exhibits sufficient maturity, lives apart from parents, has decision making capacity or attends school or has already received a diploma. See our companion article on California emancipation.
Duty to Support and Care for Minors-Child Custody in Divorce:
Parents have a legal obligation to provide support and care for minors in their charge and failure to do so may even result in criminal sanctions. Child neglect and abandonment have harsh penalties and the various child welfare agencies can remove the children from the custody of parents who neglect or abuse their children. Indeed, medical health facilities are required to investigate any situation in which a child is brought to the facility with injuries that could derive from parental abuse. Interviewing the child out of the presence of the parent is standard procedure in those situations. Most school districts have similar requirements imposed upon their staff.
The usual situation in which children are not supported, however, occurs due to divorce. See ouar article on Marital Dissolution in California. The court may award alimony or spousal support to one of the parties to a divorce who has fewer financial resources. The support award can be based on many factors, including the higher-earning party’s ability to pay, the lower-earning party’s age, physical, emotional and financial condition, earning capacity, educational level and vocational skills, length of time needed to become self-supporting, custodial responsibilities, standard of living, financial and non-financial contribution to the marriage, and the duration of the marriage. Spousal support may be considered temporary or rehabilitative and enforced only for the amount of time it takes the lower-earning spouse to become self-sufficient or permanent, if a party will likely not ever have the ability to support himself or herself. Most states allow either type of spousal support to end upon a change in circumstances, including the remarriage of the lower-earning spouse. See our articles on child custody and spousal support for a fuller examination of this issue.
If parties to a divorce who have children of the marriage cannot agree on custody and visitation rights, the court will decide these issues based on the best interests of the children. Typically, one parent will receive physical custody of the children, allowing them to reside with that parent most of the time, and both parents will share legal custody of the children. Parents with legal custody can make important decisions, such as those relating to the children’s education, religion and medical care.
Joint custody results in the children spending an equal amount of time with each parent, while split custody allows one parent to receive custody of one or more children and the other parent custody of the remaining children. In determining the best interests of the children in an award of custody, the court will consider several factors, including the children’s preference (if the children are of a certain age), age and sex of the child, children’s development and progress in school and other activities, which parent serves as the children’s primary caretaker, the parents’ mental and physical health, religious beliefs, stability of home environment, relationship with other members in parents’ home, support the parent will provide the child in interacting with the other parent or the children’s family, abuse by a parent and the lifestyle of a parent, including drug or alcohol use. In certain situations, persons other than parents may obtain custody of children, such as grandparents or other close family members. Some states consider such persons guardians of the child.
The court will also award a non-custodial parent visitation rights, either through a reasonable visitation schedule left to the parties to establish or a fixed visitation schedule. Parents who have a history of physical abuse or violence may only receive rights to supervised visitation, requiring another adult to be present during the visits with the children. Grandparents of children of divorced parents may also seek visitation rights when the parents of the children divorce or when one or both parents die. See our article on Grandparent Visitation and Custody Rights. Some states have enacted restrictive visitation statutes for grandparents only, while others allow visitation by persons other than grandparents, including foster parents or stepparents, even when the parents have not divorced or died.
Finally, a court will set forth the required amount of income to be paid by the non-custodial parent for the support of the children. Federal law requires all states to implement guidelines for determining child support. The guidelines consider the income of the parties, the number of children and the needs of the children. Although the formulas set forth in the guidelines are used to calculate a specific amount of support, parties can request that the amount be modified due to certain circumstances, such as the parents having joint physical custody of the children. Likewise, parties can seek modification of child support orders based on a change in circumstances, such as an increase or decrease in income, child’s needs or cost of living. When a party fails to pay child support, a child support withholding order or wage deduction can require that the amount of child support be automatically deducted from the party’s paycheck.
As stated above, a party may face state and federal penalties for failure to meet child support obligations, such as having his or her tax refunds collected, property seized, being imprisoned or fined for being held in contempt of court or having his or her driver’s license or other professional license revoked. While the past several decades have not seen aggressive enforcement of these support orders by the State, many jurisdictions now have set up departments of the district attorney’s office for the sole purpose of enforcing child support orders, including seeking imprisonment of those evading responsibilities. The trial on the matter may be, effectively, a criminal trial with all the rules and procedures of that type of legal action being applied.
It is also important to note that child abuse is not restricted to charges of physical assault or failure to care for the child with proper food and clothing. Exposing the child to dangerous conditions, from drug use, to driving while intoxicated, to “adventures” in the wild which are actually potentially dangerous can result in charges of child abuse. An all too common charge is leaving the children below a certain age without supervision or leaving them in an automobile in hot weather.
The days in which the parent was entirely free to determine the conditions of life for his or her child are no more. Society (and ex spouses) will scrutinize inappropriate or illegal conduct and take corrective actions.
While having children may be a source of joy, it is also a source of tremendous responsibility and obligation until emancipation and, realistically, many parents face long term commitments, if not legally required, after emancipation due to the ongoing need for additional education in today’s world. It is important, however, to differentiate between the legally imposed obligations that exist up to the age of eighteen (in California) and the voluntary obligations that may be assumed by a parent if he or she wishes thereafter.
But perhaps the most salient comment reflecting the status of children was made by a parent to the writer. He said, simply, “They are little people. They deserve the same respect and consideration as other people…and more since you have to care for them. They are not objects or status symbols or a pet.” The law agrees.