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The Age of Majority in America
Transitioning from childhood to adulthood is a developmental process. It can be discussed from various perspectives, including biological maturity, behavioral autonomy, psychological independence, and cultural rites of passages, all of which may differ significantly among communities and between individuals. Participation in a collective legal system that grants certain rights and privileges only to adults, however, requires an arbitrary threshold of adulthood. The measure of chronological age is used worldwide to declare the “age of majority”.
Definition of Majority and Transfer of Authority
The “age of majority” refers to the legal recognition of chronological adulthood, as opposed to a child’s status of “minority”; legal and financial responsibilities transfer from the juvenile individual’s parents or guardians to the individual. This differs from the “age of license,” which refers to the permission a jurisdiction grants for specific privileges, though there is overlap. Most nations have declared age 18 as the legal commencement of adulthood. Of those that differ, the youngest is Albania at 14, and none have set an age higher than 21.
In the United States, state jurisdictions determine majority. Most U.S. states have established the age of 18; the exceptions are age 19 in Alabama and Nebraska, and age 21 in Mississippi, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. For a complete list of countries and U.S. states, visit:
Prior to the age of majority, juveniles are subject to the authority, financial support, and legal protection of parents or legal guardians and the court system. Parents are defined as biological parents (regardless of marital status) and adoptive parents. Step-parents and foster parents have limited authority, which varies according to state laws, but they must legally become adoptive parents to have parental rights.
A parent has decision-making rights regarding a child’s welfare while carrying out the obligations to provide food, clothing, daily necessities, shelter, supervision, education, and essential medical care. Parents also have authority over behavioral and religious training. Parents can access police and judicial support to return a minor to their custody, request that a minor be placed under juvenile court jurisdiction, or release parental obligations to the state. Once a child reaches the age of majority or is emancipated, parents are no longer legally obligated to provide for their children.
State jurisdictions determine when court-ordered child support payments cease. This typically coincides with the age of majority, but may also take into consideration the date of graduation from high school. Other exceptions can include marriage, emancipation, military service, and disability. Custody and child support agreements may also provide for college tuition assistance. For a state-by-state listing of parameters, visit:
The legal authority of a parent cannot be undermined by law officers without a court order. If custodial disputes arise, such as with divorced parents, the court system has the right to intervene on behalf of the child’s best interests. In cases of abuse, neglect, or failure to fulfill parental obligations, the state can also intervene. Parents are criminally liable for negligence and children may be assigned to foster care or become wards of the state.
Children who are made wards of the state are under the authority of state family courts and child welfare agencies. Daily care is assigned to certified care providers in institutions, group homes, or private family residences. Reaching the age of majority is a particularly vulnerable transition for foster children because they “age out” of the system. The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 legislates provisions for proactive and post-transition outreach. Here is a summary of this Act, offered by the National Indian Child Welfare Association:
Individuals with Special Needs
Individuals vary in skills and needs. A child who requires medical or educational intervention may qualify for additional services by state agencies including assistance after the age of majority. Civic rights and privileges may be modified depending on ability, so legal awareness and advocacy are crucial to maximizing autonomy.
The following legislation has established the legal groundwork for civil rights, education and independent living for people with disabilities:
- Protecting Students With Disabilities
Frequently Asked Questions about Section 504 requirements for the education by school districts of students with disabilities
- IDEA Website
A link to the new IDEA 2004 Web site, the source for news, information and resources related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA).
Emancipation is the legal granting of financial and personal responsibility to a minor before the age of majority. This can be achieved through military enlistment or marriage (though additional requirements may apply) or by court petition. Courts typically favor foster care over emancipation and require financial self-sufficiency. The protocols and regulations vary by state, but most states will still not grant emancipated minors the right to vote, purchase alcohol, quit school, or marry without parental permission. For a list of links to each state’s pertinent laws:
The following source on emancipation of minors may also be helpful:
- Emancipation of Minors | Nolo.com
The ins and outs of minor emancipation -- what it means and how it can be obtained.
Rights and Privileges
Crossing the legal bridge from minority to majority does not automatically confer all the rights and responsibilities of an adult citizen at once; many civic matters are regulated separately. Some privileges are granted provisionally to minors and then become fully accessible at the age of majority, while others may require additional measures of eligibility (such as passing a driving test). The federal government usually uses age 18 as the age of majority, so the right to vote and serve jury duty are granted nationwide at this age. State jurisdictions may differ significantly on regulatory details, such as those for gambling.
The voting age in the United States was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971 with the passage of the 26th Amendment. Several states allow 17-year-olds to participate in primary elections and caucuses if they will be 18 by election day. Citizens must register to vote; for further information on voter registration:
- Register to Vote | USA.gov
Find assistance with registering to vote and voting.
The United States Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968 (“Jury Act”) provides for the selection of jurors from a fair representation of citizens aged 18 and older. For specific juror requirements:
- Juror Qualifications, Exemptions and Excuses
An explanation of the how jurors can qualify for jury duty, and qualifications and excuses that will exempt you from jury service.
The United States Military’s minimum age for enlistment is 17 with parental consent and 18 without parental consent.
Child Labor Laws
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938---amended in 2004 to grant more latitude to the Amish community---sets the minimum age of employment at age 14, with limitations on hours and certain jobs for children under age 16. It also bars minors under age 18 from jobs deemed hazardous. Regulations and exceptions vary depending on the job, and any conflicts with state legislation defer to the greater protection of the minor. The United States Department of Labor offers a FLSA Child Labor Rules Advisor:
The privilege of driving a motor vehicle on public roads requires a driver’s license which can be revoked for traffic violations. Driving licenses differ according to the type of vehicle and purpose, such as for commercial or chauffeur drivers. Each state has its own licensing system for residents but the systems are similar and there is mutual recognition for ordinary interstate travel. Many states have passed Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) measures based on age; most of these provisional licensing programs include Beginner, Intermediate, and Full Privilege stages as well as restrictions on night driving, cell phone use, and the number of passengers for drivers under age 18. By 18, all states grant full driving privileges. For a state-by-state list:
- State Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) Laws
The chart below lists all current state graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws. GDL programs permit young drivers to safely gain driving experience before obtaining full driving privileges, by granting driver licenses in stages under controlled condit
Minority (or “infancy”) is considered a vulnerability to the individual’s capacity to enter binding contracts and give informed consent. State jurisdictions differ on details, but minors are usually able to void contracts made before the age of majority with limited liability or consequences; this creates a high risk situation for any party signing a contract with a minor. Upon reaching the age of majority (as legally declared by the state), the individual can choose to either disaffirm or ratify a previous contract; inaction after a reasonable window of time is considered affirmation. Parents are not necessarily liable for their child’s contract unless they co-signed or officially gave consent.
The inability to sign a binding contract often limits minors from making living arrangements, signing leases, and many other transactions. Some states allow businesses---such as upscale hotels---to set age requirements even higher for their customers.
Credit Card Eligibility
The Credit Card Accountability and Disclosure Act of 2009 prohibits individuals under the age of 21 from opening a credit card unless there is a co-signer or proof of sufficient income.
The Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) and its extension, the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA), permit minors to own investment assets in accounts managed by a custodian without necessitating a trust. The age of majority at which the individual receives full access to the account differs by state UGMA/UTMA law; most are either 18 or 21. For a state-by-state listing:
State laws govern the legal name change process. Typically, the state’s age of majority is a basic requirement but exemptions are granted for marriage, emancipation or with parental consent. Additional requirements may apply, and courts retain the right to deny name change petitions (such as for fraudulent reasons or to avoid criminal prosecution).
The age of majority for marriage is 18, except in Mississippi where it is 21. Many states permit minors to marry with parental consent and/or court approval. For a list of age requirements by state:
Laws regarding sexual conduct are controversial and complicated. State laws govern intrastate sexual consent; minimum legal ages from 14 to 18 differ according to specific activities, comparative ages of partners, gender of partners, or other variables. Some states have exemptions when partners are close in age or married. United States military law sets the age of consent at 16 (which is the most common age among state laws) but defers to local jurisdictions while based in the U.S.
Legislation enacted in 2003 and 2006 sets a federal age of sexual consent at 18; this governs pornography and any sexual acts or communication that solicits sex across state or national borders or on federal property.
Juveniles who commit a crime are treated differently than adults in the legal system and are offered more rehabilitation options and greater protections, such as requiring parental presence during interrogations and public anonymity. Terms vary by state; for the purpose of criminal law, most states define juveniles as individuals below 18. For a list of state juvenile jurisdictions:
- Jurisdictional boundaries - JJGPS - Juvenile Justice, Geography, Policy, Practice & Statistics
Juvenile jurisdiction policies vary by state.
Juveniles are typically tried in separate juvenile courts and detained in institutions separate from adults, but may be charged as adults in cases of violent crimes. The death penalty for minors under 18 is prohibited by the Roper v. Simmons case of 2005. The following report from the U.S. Department of Justice provides an overview of the complexities of juvenile law:
The federal age of majority is 18 for long guns and 21 for handguns. Gun laws also take into account the purchaser’s criminal record and mental health capacity and are less strict with private transactions than with licensed dealers. For age requirements by state:
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 sets a federal minimum age of 18 for the sale of tobacco products. This minimum age has been raised to 19 in four states (Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, and Utah) and three New York counties (Onondaga, Nassau, and Suffolk).
The legal gambling age differs between states and often between different gambling venues within a state, such as for online gambling, casinos, lotteries, and bingo games. Most declare age 18 or 21 as a minimum but may go as low as 16. For a state-by-state listing and additional resources on state laws:
- USA Gambling Laws | Legal Gambling Age | Legal Gambling Age In The USA
We provide a list of the state laws pertaining to legal gambling in the United States, including USA Gambling Laws, Legal gambling age and other information about USA legal gambling. Find the legal gambling age for every state within the US.
The federal government has made legislative efforts---most notably with the Communications Decency Act of 1996--- to limit the access of minors to pornography. Federal law criminalizes any transmission of pornographic materials or internet communications to individuals known to be under age 18. First Amendment interpretation of “free speech” and definitions of “indecent” and “obscene” are controversial elements in the regulation of adult entertainment. State and local jurisdictions also have their own specific laws regarding sales, participation, and access to establishments in the adult entertainment industry.
Most states prohibit tattoos and body piercing for minors without parental consent. For a list of state-by-state regulations:
- Tattooing and Body Piercing
Statutes on tattoos and body piercing for minors
State laws traditionally hold to the official age of majority for consent to medical care, requiring parental consent for minors. Recent judicial concerns over the right to privacy, along with political and legislative efforts to increase minors’ authority over personal health care decisions, have led to revised medical consent laws. In particular, health care involving substance abuse, sexual health, and mental health often allows for minors to seek treatment without parental consent. This table offers information per state regarding types of services and consent requirements:
The age of majority is a political concept. The primary justification for age-based regulations is to protect minors from the consequences of immature decisionmaking or the abuse of others’ power. The legal foundation for regulating civic life continues to expand; it is important to seek current, accurate information and advice regarding any legal questions.