Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed. ~William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude, 1693


PREMIUM LEGAL RESOURCES LEGAL FORMS ASK A LAWYER

A minor is a person under the age of majority. The age of majority is the age at which a minor, in the eyes of the law, becomes an adult. This age is 18 in most states. In a few other states, the age of majority is 19 or 21. A minor is considered to be a resident of the same state as her custodial parent or guardian.

Once a person reaches the age of majority, she may vote, sign a will, enter into a binding contract, buy property, and generally act without parental consent. An unwed mother who is under the age of majority, however, may be required to notify, or obtain the consent of, her parents or a court before having an abortion. In addition, a person must be 21 before he or she can buy alcoholic beverages. A state may not have one age of majority for men and a different one for women.

DEPENDENT CHILD

A dependent child is one who still depends on his parents for financial support, a child who can be claimed by an adult on an income tax return because he receives at least one-half of his support from that adult or a child who is eligible to receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

CHANGING A CHILD'S NAME

When a custodial parent seeks to change either a child's given name (first name) or surname (last name), the change is permitted in most states as long as the court determines it to be in the best interest of the child. A child's name cannot legally be changed without a court order, however. In some states, courts refuse to grant a name change if one parent objects.

AGE OF CONSENT TO MARRY

Every state sets an age under which people must obtain the consent of a parent or guardian in order to marry. The age at which no parental consent is needed is called the age of consent and is 18 in most states (a few states allow younger persons to marry without a parent's consent). Some states require professional counseling and the approval of a judge instead of parental consent if a person under 18 wants to get married.

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SIDE NOTE - AGE OF CONSENT TO HAVE SEX

In all states, sexual intercourse with a woman (except by a husband with his wife) under the age of consent is irrebuttably presumed to be the rape of that woman. Her consent is irrelevant; she is presumed to be unable to consent to sexual intercourse until she reaches the age of consent. For this purpose, the age of consent varies among the states and is usually 14 to 18. Depending on the state, the age of the man may determine the severity of the punishment. If he too, is very young, a court may view the situation as an experiment, rather than rape; young men, however, may very well be prosecuted for rape.

In addition to statutory rape laws, most states have unlawful sex statutes that prohibit adults from engaging in sexual intercourse with minors, even if they are over the age of consent. Unlawful sex statutes are usually misdemeanors (punishable by a fine, or a jail sentence not to exceed one year), whereas statutory rape is a felony (punishable by a sentence of a year or longer in jail).
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EMANCIPATED MINOR

A minor demonstrating freedom from parental control or support is considered emancipated, or may be declared emancipated by a court. An emancipated minor is considered an adult for purposes such as entering into contracts (for employment or buying a car, for instance) and signing a will. Emancipated minors are treated like adults and establish their residency by where they live and intend to remain. An unwed mother or father who is a minor, moves out of her or his parents' home and raises the child, is usually considered emancipated.

A minor who goes on active military duty is considered emancipated without a court order. A minor who gets a job and moves out of the family home is usually considered emancipated, but some states require a court order of emancipation before a parent's duty to support ends. In most states, minors who wish to get married before reaching the age of consent to marry need to obtain a court order of emancipation or, in some states, their parent's consent.

Child support obligations to the parents of emancipated minors may be canceled by the court. For obvious reasons, most states do not allow parents to unilaterally declare their children emancipated; rather, a special proceeding must be brought to have the child declared emancipated by a court.

INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN

Children who refuse to obey their parents are classified by the juvenile laws of many states as incorrigible. The same label applies to children who engage in behavior which is noncriminal, but prohibited for persons of their age (for example, running away from home, chronic truancy or endangering their own or another's health or morals).

Incorrigible children are often referred to as status offenders because they would not be in court but for their status as minors. Incorrigible children may be brought into the court system by police, welfare or school officials or by parents seeking help.

DELINQUENT CHILDREN

When a person under the age of majority engages in an act which would be a crime if committed by an adult, she is said to have committed a delinquent act and is referred to as a juvenile delinquent, delinquent or delinquent child.

PARENTAL CONTROL

Parental control is the right and responsibility a parent has to rear and nurture her child. If parental control is not being exercised, the child may be considered the victim of child neglect; if a parent is unable to control her child, the child may be considered incorrigible. If a minor becomes emancipated, he is no longer legally under parental control.

GUARDIAN

A guardian is an adult given the legal right to control and care for a minor child or a disabled adult, called the ward. A guardian may be awarded custody of a minor. Courts order guardianships over children when their parents are unavailable to care for them and another adult has assumed that responsibility. Guardianships are necessary so that schools, hospitals and other authority figures have an adult to turn to in the event a decision needs to be made about the child. Guardians are accountable to courts for the well being and financial best interests of their wards.

NEXT FRIEND

When a child or an adult unable to legally care for himself wants to bring an action in court, a competent adult (often a parent, child or spouse) must usually bring the case for him as his next friend, as in "John Doe, a minor, through his next friend, Sally Doe, his mother."

GUARDIAN AD LITEM

If a party in a lawsuit is a minor or an adult unable to legally care for herself, the court must appoint a person to protect and manage the person's interests in any legal proceedings that directly affect her. That person is called a guardian ad litem and is often, although not always, a parent or close relative, or an attorney. Twenty-five states also authorize the appointment of a guardian ad litem to represent the child's interests, without the child actually becoming a party to the case, when custody is an issue.

If a guardian ad litem is not an attorney, the minor or disabled adult is frequently represented by an attorney as well. Both the guardian ad litem and the attorney are to act in and articulate the best interests of the minor or disabled adult. When the attorney and the guardian ad litem differ, the attorney often disregards the guardian ad litem's advice.

PARENTAL LIABILITY

Parental liability is the term used to refer to a parent's obligation to pay for damage done by negligent, intentional or criminal acts of his child. In 47 states, parents are responsible for all malicious or willful property damage done by their children; in 30 states, parents are liable for all malicious or willful personal injuries inflicted by their children. Eight states obligate parents only when their children have acted illegally. Hawaii, Louisiana and Oregon hold parents responsible for all torts committed by their children. Only Washington, D.C. does not hold parents liable at all. All parental liability laws limit the amount of liability to between $300 and $15,000, depending on the state. See Table 11.2 in the appendix.

Parental liability usually ends when the child reaches the age of majority and does not begin until the child reaches somewhere between eight and ten. (No one is liable for damage done by a child younger than eight or so unless the parent was grossly negligent - for example, giving the child a loaded gun.)

FAMILY CAR DOCTRINE

The family car doctrine holds the owner of a family car legally responsible for any damage caused by a family member when driving if the owner knew of and consented to the family member's use of the car. This doctrine is followed by the courts of approximately 20 states.

UNFIT PARENT

If a parent's lifestyle is found to be detrimental to a child, a court may declare that parent unfit to have any contact - including supervised visitation - with her child. What constitutes unfitness depends on many issues, including the social, psychological and sexual behavior of the parent. Unfitness is an extreme determination. It often leads to a termination of parental rights, and usually involves abuse or severe neglect.

ABANDONED CHILD

When a parent fails to provide any financial assistance to, and/or communicate with, his child over a period of time, a court may deem the child legally abandoned by that parent. Two important consequences of a court finding of abandonment are that the parent's rights are terminated and the child may be adopted through court proceedings without the parent's permission. This determination is made at a court hearing. Abandonment actions are often initiated by stepparents or foster parents who want to adopt but cannot get permission from one or both of the legal parents.

Abandonment also describes situations where a child is physically abandoned - left on a doorstep, delivered to a hospital or placed in a trash can, for example. These children are usually placed in orphanages or foster homes and made available for adoption. Parents who abandon their children in this way may be criminally prosecuted.

NEGLECTED CHILD

When a parent or guardian fails to provide a child with adequate necessaries, education, supervision or general guidance, the adult may be guilty of child neglect. If child neglect is suspected, the local welfare department will conduct an investigation. In severe cases, the child will be removed from the home after a court hearing and placed in a foster home. If the parents do not improve their situation within a reasonable time (usually between six months and two years, depending on the state), the child may be taken away permanently and placed for adoption. In especially severe cases, the parents or guardian may be criminally prosecuted.

In some situations, parents may be unable to properly care for their children by themselves but may have the ability to perform their responsibilities with appropriate outside help. In these instances, courts often allow the children to stay with the parents as long as the parents accept help, usually from a social service agency.

CHILD ABUSE

Physical, emotional or sexual mistreatment of a child is child abuse. Physical abuse generally consists of causing physical harm to a child, even if the injury is temporary. Thus, corporal punishment that causes bruising or burning, and deprivation of food, water or needed medical treatment are all examples of physical abuse. While some parents who rely on force to discipline their children may be unable to tell the difference between child abuse and proper parental treatment, most parents know where the line is, even if it can't be defined.

Emotional abuse includes speech and conduct calculated to deprive the child of dignity and self-esteem, such as humiliating the child in front of family or friends, isolating the child from other persons for long periods of time and habitually directing language or gestures at the child that are designed to punish rather than instruct.

Sexual mistreatment includes virtually all behavior towards the child that is designed to lead to sexual gratification of either the adult or the child. While the most common forms of sexual mistreatment are outright sexual acts such as fondling or sexual intercourse, sexual mistreatment may also consist of placing the child in compromising situations such as nudity, inappropriate clothing, and methods of discipline that are commonly associated with sexual gratification.

In some situations, an abused child is removed from the home by a court and placed in the care of the state. Many are placed in foster homes. In addition, the abuser may be criminally prosecuted.

DEPENDENT CHILD

A dependent child is also one found by a court to have been neglected or abused by his parents or guardians. He is placed under the protection of the court or appropriate social welfare agency. He may be placed in a foster home and eventually released for adoption.

TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS

Parental rights are rights to exercise parental control and custody of a child. When a child is placed up for adoption, the birth parents' rights are terminated. (If a child is adopted by her stepparent, only the noncustodial parent's rights are terminated.)

If a court finds a parent unfit, or places a child in a foster home, parental rights may be temporarily suspended while the parent tries to rehabilitate herself. If the rehabilitation succeeds, parental rights may be restored.

JUVENILE COURT

Most states have established a special juvenile court to consider cases involving minor children who:

  • are neglected, abandoned or abused by their parents
  • are considered incorrigible (also called status offenders), or
  • commit crimes.

The original purpose of these courts was to provide a judicial procedure for troubled children that would be less harsh than the regular criminal court process. To this end, judges are given broad discretion in an effort to counsel and rehabilitate minors. In addition, many juvenile court systems have introduced new vocabulary: crimes are called delinquent acts; the court adjudges a minor to be a ward of the court rather than find him guilty; and the court disposes of a case rather than pronounces sentence. Despite these new terms, many observers have noted that the system works more or less the same as the regular criminal system, with similar results. On occasion, juveniles are sent to reform institutions for acts that would not constitute crimes if they were adults.

PROBATION DEPARTMENT INVESTIGATION

When a child is suspected of being abused, neglected or incorrigible, the court handling the matter will normally want the family environment investigated. The investigation usually consists of one or more visits to the home by a social worker, who physically views the surroundings and talks to whomever is present. Most visits are scheduled; often, however, the social worker makes at least one unannounced visit. Depending on the state and kind of case, the investigation will be conducted by the juvenile probation department, the adult probation department or the welfare department.

FOSTER HOME

When a child is temporarily placed by a court or welfare department in a home other than her parents', it is termed a foster home.

FOSTER PARENT

Adults who take children into their homes when those children have been removed from their biological parents' home by a court are called foster parents. Foster parents usually become the guardians of the children placed in their homes. If the biological parents are unable to make the necessary changes to have the children return to them, their parental rights may be terminated and the children made available for adoption. When this occurs, foster parents usually have priority in adopting. In fact, many states have Fost-Adopt programs, where the foster placement is intended to lead to the adoption of the children by the foster parents.

Foster parents are often entitled to receive payments from the state welfare department to assist them in supporting the children. Foster parents who parent disabled children may receive even higher payments. The payments usually terminate, however, if the foster parents adopt the children.

GROUP HOME

When delinquent children or incorrigible children are taken away from their parents by juvenile courts, they are supposed to be placed in the least restrictive environment. In most states, private individuals have obtained licenses to operate special group homes in which juvenile courts place children who don't need to be confined to state or county institutions or reform schools. These group homes function much like regular homes, except that the operators specialize in providing supervision to troubled children.

ORPHANAGE

An orphanage is a group home maintained for the care, custody and control of children who have no parents or guardians.

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