For any number of teenagers living under strict parental guidelines, the idea of emancipation must seem like the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card. The harsh reality concerning legal emancipation is that many may feel called, but relatively few are chosen. In the United States, a child under the age of 18 can generally be considered emancipated, no longer under parental control, for three main reasons: legal marriage, demonstrated financial independence, or military service. Short of that, most teenagers can only claim disgruntlement.
Of the three main options for legal emancipation, the least problematic for both parents and child is demonstrable financial independence. This is the sort of legal emancipation enjoyed by child actors, singers, models and other professional performers. Under many child labor laws, these talented children must allow an adult to handle their financial affairs until they reach adulthood. Unfortunately, some parents have been known to take advantage of their child's good fortune and spend the income on themselves. By seeking legal emancipation, a working child can be considered an adult when it comes to matters of contracts and financial dealings.
If a child can arrange for his or her own suitable housing, food, clothing and other essential needs, the parents can consider an emancipation agreement. This doesn't have to be a formal legal procedure, but a family court judge may want to examine the child's living arrangements and financial records if a legal dispute should arise. The child may also seek a formal court order establishing his or her legal status as an emancipated minor. This does not mean, however, that an unhappy 15-year-old girl can secure a job at a fast food restaurant for minimum wage and declare herself emancipated. The key to this type of emancipation is true financial independence, with a real need to enter into contracts before the age of majority.
Another route to emancipation for a child is marriage. Laws concerning the minimal age of consent vary from state to state, but it is possible for a young teen to marry with parental consent. Once a legal marriage has been registered, legal emancipation of a minor soon follows. This form of emancipation has been available for decades, but the number of child-brides has been declining in recent years. The practice was much more common when society in general encouraged young girls to marry as soon as possible.
Early marriage as a form of emancipation may satisfy the legal requirements, but it can be a very risky maneuver both emotionally and socially. Using marital vows to escape an unhappy home life is not necessarily a cure, since the minor must assume many adult responsibilities. Parents may no longer feel any financial responsibility towards an emancipated teenager, and employment prospects may be severely limited without a high school diploma, General Educational Development (GED) diploma or college degree. Emancipation through marriage may seem like an appealing option, but it does not automatically grant a minor all the rights of an adult.
One other form of emancipation involves military service. Although the individual branches of the military set their own minimal age requirements and screen recruits very carefully, occasionally an underaged applicant slips through the net. This was a much more common occurrence during World Wars I and II, when some teenaged boys could volunteer for service without much scrutiny. If a minor enlists in a recognized military program and somehow manages to be lawfully inducted, he or she could be considered legally emancipated.