By Brad TenBrook and Mallory Scott
What motivates a child to become an emancipated minor? The most common example that comes to mind is probably the child actor or performer with substantial assets, hoping to break away from parental interference. However, seeking emancipation does not guarantee clear-cut results, as parents still have a right to fight against the idea that their children should be allowed to live independently.
Working children have sought emancipation from exploitative industries for decades, with popularity surging in the 1990s. Macaulay Culkin and Drew Barrymore likely come to mind as the most famous child actors to seek emancipation due to their parents’ irresponsibility in handling their finances, while Ariel Winter is a more recent example of emancipation ending in a contentious court case with a parent who protests the process. In general, the purpose of emancipation is to ensure that minor children who can financially support themselves without parental involvement have the means to live independently before turning eighteen. The role of parents in actively promoting emancipation as a means of controlling their child, however, is an ironic scenario that also may emerge within the juvenile and family court systems as a means of circumventing further court involvement.
The general factors for emancipation in Arizona under ARS § 12-2451 include: “demonstrated ability to manage [their] financial affairs…ability to manage [their] personal and social affairs…[and] demonstrated ability to live wholly independent of [their] parents.” While the statute may appear restrictive, one must consider how much parental involvement is present in the decision to initiate the process, and for what reason they may choose to be involved. The transparent nature of the factors required for emancipation may allow a parent or guardian to manufacture the “proof” necessary to prove independence and abuse these statutes to exert their authority over the child.
The emancipation statute for Arizona was a relatively late development as it was first established in 2005, especially when compared to the more progressive laws enacted in California . The passage of the Coogan laws in CA in the late 1930s was an early attempt to protect child actors and was considered a specialized protective measure of minors when passed . These laws prevent parents of child actors from limiting access to the funds that their children earned before reaching legal adulthood but did not always work in practice. Some child actors have referenced their decision to emancipate as a legal loophole around the financial requirements and workday restrictions these laws established (including the highly successful Michelle Williams and Laura Dern, both of whom started in the industry as child actresses).
In Arizona, marriage also serves as a means for the relevant emancipation requirements to be bypassed, as this process allows for an immediate change in status to legal adulthood. ARS § 25-102 outlines the requirements for a minor to be married beginning at age sixteen. Emancipation or permission from a custodial parent, plus the stipulation that the minor’s spouse is no more than three years older than them, is all required for a sixteen-year-old to become a legal spouse in Arizona. If a minor has already been emancipated, then the permission of a parent to get married will allow their status to automatically change to that of a legal adult.
Emancipation should not be a natural gateway for a minor to immediately become dependent on another adult or institution that promises to provide for them. Instead, the intended purpose of emancipation, to allow minors to live independently and be free from unsafe parental situations, should be honored. The requirements for emancipation intend to demonstrate the extraordinary burden that must be met for a minor child to take on the responsibility of adulthood. This decision should not be made without serious consideration and only be granted in extraordinary circumstances (which are more likely to occur in the rare case of a child having significant financial resources and typified in the Hollywood setting). Now, with the rise of youth “influencer” culture, it will be interesting to see if the financial complexities of Hollywood will start to impact Arizona families.
Brad TenBrook is a former Assistant Attorney General in Arizona. Brad’s practice now focuses on child abuse and neglect litigation.
Mallory Scott is a law clerk at Woodnick Law and a 2L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.