The law only recognizes as legal the acts of persons who possess the capacity to form the proper intent to perform the particular acts. Two aspects of "capacity" are recognized: the mental capacity to form the intent to commit an act, and maturity, or the roughly objective measure of the ability to form a legal intent. It is maintained that when a child reaches a certain age his or her capacity to form the proper intent matures. At this point a child can be held accountable for his or her actions.
The age at which every person is considered an adult is known as the "age of majority" and is usually 18 years old. In addition, some states allow minors who are living apart from their parents and supporting themselves to be "emancipated." This means that the minor will be treated as an adult for legal purposes. The minimum age for majority or emancipation is sometimes set out in statutes, but is frequently determined by the common law.
The Emancipation Process
A minor can become emancipated in the following ways:
- Getting married
- Joining the military or
- Obtaining a court order.
Emancipation through Marriage
In certain states like Pennsylvania, for example, if you marry prior to reaching that state's age of majority, you become emancipated without a court's permission; you are automatically emancipated.
Emancipation through the Military
The other way that minors are emancipated without a court order occurs when they join the military. This is applicable for 17 year olds since the minimum age for joining the Armed Forces is 17. However, this type of emancipation does require a parent or legal guardian's signature.
Emancipation through Court Order
Although this option is not available in certain states such as Delaware and Maryland, emancipation through the filing of a court order is a viable alternative for minors who are not married, not enlisted, or who cannot obtain parental permission. The states vary regarding the age when minors can emancipate. For example, many states require that a minor must be at least 16, but in California, minors as young as 14 may become emancipated.
Activities Impacted by Age Limits
The variation of age limits for different activities, such as marrying, voting, or consuming alcohol, illustrates the values a society places on certain types of activities and how a society values individual responsibility and accountability. For instance, when a minor intentionally injures another or damages property, he or she may be held liable for the act at age fourteen, and even earlier, in some instances, in certain courts. But he or she may not be allowed to drink or vote until age 21 or 18.
The limitations on a minor's ability to contract, however, are established to protect innocent third parties and ignorant or immature first parties. If a minor makes a foolish business decision out of immaturity or ignorance, the contract may be voided on the basis of a lack of capacity to contract.
Talk to a Family Law Attorney
The law provides guidelines and directives for the behavior of minors, but varies depending on the jurisdiction. Are you a minor contemplating emancipation or marriage? If you are concerned with how the law affects your status as a minor, you should talk to an experienced family law attorney.