When does a child turn into an adult? You can easily say 18. But a family lawyer can argue that it’s not as simple. In a colloquial context, adulthood is generally a clear concept. Most of us associate emancipation with turning 18. Woke culture further emphasized that anyone under the said age is incapacitated to make sound decisions—no questions asked.
Yet questions do arise in a legal context, where things are more complicated. One’s age of independence can be a judicial question on which family courts could decide.
The law defines adulthood under technicalities and legalese, which vary across statutes and states.
Adulthood Under the Law Comes in Tiers
While you are correct in considering 18 as an age when a child turns into an adult, it is only one of the answers. Sometimes, American laws ask you to read between the lines.
In most states, anyone under the age of 18 is considered a minor. Hence, 18 is the age of the majority as a general rule. The exceptions are Alabama and Nebraska, where 19 is the age of majority.
But the term “age of majority” should not be confused with other developmental stages—emancipation, age of consent, and marriageable age—which the law permits to occur before 18 years of age.
The law defines emancipation as an act by which a person is set free from another’s authority and control. Reaching the age of majority is the common way to achieve emancipation, but it can occur before one’s 18th birthday under special circumstances.
Parents have a fiduciary duty to take care of their children. And minors, in turn, have the duty to serve and obey their parents. But sometimes, this hierarchy isn’t for the best interest of the child. For these children, the law offers emancipation as liberation.
Emancipation can be achieved by filing a petition at a family court with jurisdiction over the person of the minor child. Some states like Alabama only allow parents to do so, which may work against its “best interest clause,” particularly for minor victims of violence and abuse. But for most states, minors can file the petition themselves.
This does not mean immediate granting of adult rights. The minor must cite reasons why it is in their best interest to become independent. The court must decide only after careful deliberation of all pertinent facts.
Aside from stating their case, the minor must also prove financial self-sufficiency. If they can’t, the court may decide that foster care may be the better option.
Emancipation laws are not unified across all states, and the specifics of the process may differ from one state to another.
Age of Consent
Upon reaching the age of consent, one is considered to have the capacity to agree to intimate acts. The majority of states set this within 16 to 17, except for California and a few other states where it is set at 18 years of age.
However, upon a closer look, the guidelines can be a bit more complicated than that, especially in determining statutory rape. Only 12 states consider a “single age of consent,” wherein anyone below such age cannot consent to sexual acts under any circumstances.
For the other 39 states, other factors like age differential are considered. For example, in New Jersey, the age of consent is 16, but minors who are at least 13 years old can engage in sexual activities if the partner is less than 4 years their senior.
It is common sense to assume that the age of sexual consent and marriageable age should come hand-in-hand, yet they don’t. The more significant issue is that marriageable age can be as young as 12 years.
People have found marriage laws’ loophole: parental approval can be twisted to excuse child marriage. While 18 is the minimum age requirement to marry, state laws allow someone younger if accompanied with parental or judicial consent.
This is alarming for its moral implications.
Child Marriage: An American Problem Swept Under the Rug
In 2019, the United Nations Population Fund, formerly the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), estimated about 650 million women married while still children. In America alone, the figures are estimated to be at least 248,000 during the first decade of the 2000s.
Child marriage can deny a woman agency and autonomy over her body. Teenage pregnancy can also cause health problems, as the young body is not yet fully developed to handle such a task.
Additionally, child marriage undermines a minor’s potential for something more outside the domestic realm.
Eradicating Child Marriage
As the world becomes more conscious about human rights, authorities are now pursuing action to end child marriage. Thanks to the unrelenting advocacy of organizations like Unchained at Last, lawmakers have been prompted to make a move.
As of 2020, child marriages are banned, with no exceptions, in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.
Seeking Legal Help
The law may still need revisions, but this is why we have lawyers. They are not robots who merely take in legal provisions. Rather, their humanity gives them moral and social motivations, prompting them to use legal knowledge to curtail the system’s ailments.
For example, while a parent may force a 14-year-old daughter to marry, she can obtain explicit emancipation with the help of a family lawyer. This can now vest upon her “adult” rights to obtain a divorce. Should you have similar issues, it’s helpful to see that the law is still on your side.