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Emancipation – Can It Happen and Why?

Most teenagers hit a point in their lives when they want to be emancipated from their parents. Usually this comes at a time when they are tired of living with Mom’s and Dad’s rules. They think emancipation will solve all their problems.

If you are reading this article, you are likely either a parent with a minor who wishes to be emancipated, or a minor wishing to be emancipated. Regardless of your status in this situation, emancipation is not a procedure to be taken lightly.

Children do not realize that being on their own and being responsible for their own choices can bring problems of a different sort. If your teenager is considering emancipation, here are some things to ponder first: Utah has an Emancipation of a Minor Act. The purpose of this act has been explained as follows:

“to provide a means by which a minor who has demonstrated the ability and capacity to manage his or her own affairs and to live independent of his or her parents or guardian, may obtain the legal status of an emancipated person with the power to enter into valid legal contracts.” (Utah Code 78A-6-801)

Sounds good, right? But there are some caveats to this.

First, the minor must be 16 years of age or older in order to petition the juvenile court for emancipation. Minors younger than this are not eligible for emancipation. The minor must be able to live independently and manage his or her financial affairs. This is not something many teenagers are capable of doing. (See Utah Code 78A-6-803)

Second, the court will consider the best interests of the minor in deciding whether to grant emancipation or not. The court will be looking at factors such as: “(a) whether the minor is capable of assuming adult responsibilities; (b) whether the minor is capable of living independently of his or her parents, guardian, or custodian; (c) opinions and recommendations from the guardian ad litem, parents, guardian, or custodian, and any other evidence; and (d) whether emancipation will create a risk of harm to the minor.” (Utah Code 78A-6-804)

This is not just a matter of a teenager wanting to live without rules. Emancipation must be in the best interest of the minor, meaning it would be better for the minor to be living independently than to be living with a parent or guardian. It does not often happen that a minor is benefitted by living independently, though it can happen. The focus here is on the fact that a minor can’t just choose to be emancipated. It can only happen by a judicial order, which will only happen if the court believes emancipation would be in the minor’s best interest.

Looking more closely at the requirements for emancipation, how does a minor demonstrate the ability to live independently and to manage his or her own financial affairs? First of all, the minor must have the capability of financially supporting himself or herself. Most minors cannot do this, unless they have inherited a trust fund or other large sum of money or they have a very high-paying job. In addition, it would be helpful if the minor has experience managing finances and making financial decisions. If the minor has ever lived independently or managed his or her affairs before, the court would consider this information.

Marriage or registration with the military are other ways a minor can demonstrate an ability to live independently and manage his or her own affairs. Emancipation happens automatically upon marriage or military registration, though a minor wishing to marry must still obtain parental permission.

Third, consider some of the activities an emancipated minor may take part in: entering into contracts, buying and selling property, suing (or being sued), and borrowing money. (See Utah Code 78A-6-805.) These are serious responsibilities with serious consequences. Are these activities you believe your teenager is ready for? Would you feel confident in your teen’s ability to understand the ramifications of taking out a loan or purchasing a vehicle? There must be a certain level of maturity possessed by the minor which will allow the minor to assume the roles and responsibilities of an adult.

Fourth, even if a minor is emancipated, the minor is not considered an "adult" with the same rights and privileges in all situations. There are some circumstances when an emancipated minor may not be considered an adult. These include select criminal laws (when certain conditions are met), when the minor is a victim of a crime and the victim’s age is an element of the crime, and when there are statutory age requirements for rights like “voting, use of alcoholic beverages, possession of tobacco or firearms, and other health and safety regulations relevant to the minor because of the minor's age.” (See Utah Code 78A-6-805.2.) Emancipation does not overcome the age requirements for these statutes, and a minor will still be subject to these restrictions.

When would emancipation be appropriate? There are legitimate times when emancipation might be the best option. In situations where a minor is being abused at home or when home life is extraordinarily traumatic to the minor, emancipation may be appropriate. In addition, in some situations where a minor has inherited a trust fund and does not want a third party managing the money, this may also be an appropriate situation for the minor child to be emancipated.

There also may be times when a parent might wish for their minor to be emancipated. In situations of child support for a minor because of a parental divorce, the parent paying child support may wish to have the minor emancipated in order to end the child support payments. Parental financial support is not required for emancipated minors. A parent may also wish to no longer be liable for the acts of the minor. Once emancipated, a minor becomes responsible for his/her own actions. Utah Code 78A-6-805.3 states as follows: “An order of emancipation prospectively terminates parental responsibilities that accrue based on the minor's status as a minor under the custody and control of a parent, guardian, or custodian, including parental tort liability for the acts of the minor.” While this may be a reason for a parent to wish for emancipation of a child, that parent must remember that the court will be looking at the best interests of the minor, and emancipation to terminate child support payments will most likely not be in the minor child's best interests.

Being an adult may seem attractive to a minor, but young adults nowadays are heard complaining that “adulting” isn’t as much fun as they thought it would be or that it’s too hard. Minors tend to glamorize what it means to be an adult, focusing only on the benefits, but not the responsibilities. If your teen is contemplating emancipation, counsel with and advise him or her on what it means to be an adult. This is not a decision to be taken lightly.

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