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Do Parents Own Their Children's Property?

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. | Last updated on

All children under the age of 18 have the same rights with respect to owning property. They cannot enter into a contract without a parent co-signing, unless they are emancipated minors. But assuming that a minor came into the possession of the item without having entered into a contract, as is the case with most purchases and gifts, parents have no ownership rights over the property of children. Parent's do, however, have legal responsibility for their children's actions, both criminally and civilly, under the doctrine of parental liability.

Merging these two concepts of minor ownership and parental liability can be a real problem, in an age when parents are feeling like they have run out of disciplinary resources. For instance, if you don't like the way your child is behaving at home, can you legally take away their toy? Or their X-Box? Or their iPhone? The answer is, it depends, but it is never under a concept of ownership, but rather, custodial rights. But more often the real question is, are you seeing the bigger picture?

Custodial Control of Property

Parents, as legal guardians, may be allowed to take temporary custodial control of their children's property, and hold it in good care for them until a set time, and then return it. The child still owns the property, though they may not be constantly in possession.

If a child is violating any civil or criminal laws using the property, the parent can be held liable for those acts under parental liability statutes. For example, parents are expected to take custodial control of iPhones in cyberbullying situations, and can be held liable for resulting acts of their child's cyberbullying, including the victim's suicide. The length for which this possession can be in effect is up to local laws, and it would be best to contact a family lawyer to determine each party's rights and responsibilities.

Is the Issue Bigger Than the Property?

If a parent wants to establish ownership of an item, it begs the question, 'why'? If the parents are separated, you can be sure that the other parent will ask this big question.

Take for instance, a case in Texas, where two parents were separated, and the father took his 15 year old daughter's iPhone, which had been given to her by her mother. Based on complaints by the daughter, the mother filed a stolen property report with police. The father wouldn't surrender the iPhone to police, based on parenting decisions. He was charged with a Class C misdemeanor, which was later upgraded to a Class B misdemeanor theft, and he was arrested. This crime carries a penalty of a $2,000 fine and up to six months in jail. After getting bailed out of jail and hiring an attorney, he rejected a plea deal, and went to trial. His own daughter testified against him. In the end, the father was acquitted due to lack of evidence. But his daughter never spoke to him again and legally sought a change in her legal and physical custodial status. The father won the battle, but lost the war.

If a parent has to ask whether or not they own their child's property, there is probably a larger issue at stake, including parental liability and custodial agreements. Take the time to speak with a family lawyer about the property matter, as well as the larger issues involved, to seek the best possible outcome for you and your children.

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