California Legal Ages Laws: Age of Majority and Eligibility for Emancipation, and Minor's Rights
By Lindsay Kramer
Updated September 10, 2019
Under most circumstances, an 18-year-old is considered a legal adult in the United States. However, people under age 21 face certain age-based restrictions and in some scenarios, people under age 18 are afforded the same rights as legal adults.
In California, once a person reaches the age of 18, he or she is legally considered an adult and gains all of the rights of adults, including the right to vote, marry and make important health and financial decisions for themselves. In certain situations however, a person under the age of 18 can legally become an adult through a court process called emancipation.
Emancipation in California
Emancipation is the legal process through which a minor is granted the same level of autonomy as a legal adult. When a minor is emancipated, her parents are no longer obligated to provide her with any type of support, such as housing, food or financial support. It is possible for a teenager as young as age 14 to seek emancipation in California. Emancipation in California is granted when one of these events occurs:
- The minor enlists in the United States military.
- The minor marries.
- The court approves the minor’s petition for emancipation.
When a minor is legally emancipated, she may act without parental notification or consent, including:
- Handle her own finances.
- Enter legally binding contracts.
- Retain legal services.
- Enroll in the school of her choice.
- Obtain a work permit and become employed.
- Make her own medical decisions.
Emancipation does not grant a minor all the rights afforded to adults. An emancipated minor cannot purchase alcohol, vote, get married without parental consent or become a licensed California driver before age 16. There are a variety of reasons why a minor might seek emancipation, such as wanting to escape an abusive home or as a way to manage his own finances as an entertainer or an entrepreneur. When ruling on a minor’s petition for emancipation, the court considers all relevant aspects of the case, like whether he can support himself financially, whether he is mature enough to handle daily life without parental support and whether he has established his own residence.
Minors’ Rights in California
Minors of all ages, even if emancipated, have certain rights, including:
- The right to have their best interests considered during all court decisions regarding them, such as child custody proceedings.
- The right to disability accommodations in the classroom to ensure equal education opportunities for all children.
- The right to due process when facing juvenile charges.
- The right to a safe home environment.
- The right to equal protection under the law regardless of sex, race, religion or disability.
- If the child is age 12 or older, the right to refuse or consent to adoption.
- The right to be treated humanely by law enforcement and to refuse to answer officers’ questions.
- The right to be represented by a lawyer in court.
Technically, unemancipated minors may not have abortions without parental consent in California. However, this law is not currently enforced due to a 1997 ruling that it violates the minor's right to privacy. Minors may also obtain birth control and prenatal care without parental consent. A pregnant minor’s parent cannot legally force the minor to abort a pregnancy.
Age of Majority and What It Brings
The age of majority and of consent in California is 18. This is the age of majority in most states, but there are a few notable exceptions, such as Alabama, where the age of majority is 19 and Mississippi, where it is 21. The age of majority is the age at which a minor becomes a legal adult. This means that for the most part, they gain all the legal rights and responsibilities that come with adulthood.
When a California teenager turns 18, she can:
- Enter legally binding contracts.
- Vote in federal elections if she is a citizen.
- Vote in local elections if she is a citizen or a green card holder.
- Enlist in the U. S. military without parental consent.
- Marry without parental consent.
- Make medical decisions without parental consent.
- File a lawsuit and recover compensation for damages.
- Purchase California lottery tickets.
- Gamble in certain tribe-owned casinos.
- Get a job without parental consent.
- Get a tattoo or piercing without parental consent.
Additionally, all nonexempt men must register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of turning 18. Despite becoming a legal adult at 18, though, there are certain actions an individual cannot take until she turns 21. These include:
- Purchasing alcoholic beverages.
- Consuming alcoholic beverages in public locations.
- Purchasing recreational cannabis.
- Entering many casinos and age-restricted night clubs.
- Obtaining a permit to carry a concealed firearm.
- Obtaining a credit card without a cosigner.
California Age of Consent
The California age of consent is 18. This means that in nearly all circumstances, it is illegal for an adult to engage in sexual intercourse with a person under the age of 18. There is only one exception to this law: When the adult and the minor are legally married. Technically, it is even illegal for two minors to engage in sexual intercourse with each other in California.
Unlike many other states, California does not have a “Romeo and Juliet” law. This type of law basically makes it legal for an adult to engage in consensual sexual contact with a minor if the age gap between the two parties is small, such as two or three years. Although there is no circumstance under which sex between an unmarried adult and minor is legal in California, the charge the adult faces for engaging in this type of sexual contact depends on the age gap between the two parties. Sexual contact between an adult and a minor, known legally as statutory rape, is charged in California:
- If the age gap between the two parties is three years or less, the offense is always charged as a misdemeanor.
- If there is an age gap of more than three years between the parties, the offense may be charges as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
If the adult was 21 or older, and the minor was 16 or younger when the sexual intercourse occurred, the adult may be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. However, if convicted, he could face steeper penalties for the offense than he would face if there were not such a significant age and maturity gap between them.
Penalties for Statutory Rape in California
In California, statutory rape is a "wobbler" offense. This means that it may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances surrounding the alleged incident.
When an adult is charged with statutory rape as a misdemeanor, she faces penalties, including:
- Informal probation.
- Up to one year in county jail.
- Up to $1,000 in fines.
An adult charged with felony-level statutory rape faces these penalties if convicted:
- Informal or formal probation, which can include up to one year in county jail.
- If the adult was under 21, and the minor was 16 or older, between 16 months and three years in prison.
- If the adult was over 21 and the minor was under 16, between two and four years in prison.
- Up to $10,000 in fines.
Individuals convicted of statutory rape are not required to register as sex offenders in California. However, certain other sex crimes involving children do carry this requirement, including:
- Possession of child pornography.
- Creating, sharing, selling or promoting child pornography.
- Engaging in lewd acts with a child.
- Sodomy with a minor who is at least 10 years younger than the defendant.
- Aggravated sexual assault committed against a minor.
- Pimping a minor.
- Engaging in sexual acts with a minor under age 10.
- Sending harmful material to a minor for the purpose of seducing her.
Minors’ Parental Rights in California
Having a baby does not automatically emancipate a minor in California, and although teenage parents remain under their own parents’ authority, they also have parental rights to their own children. Put another way, a 16-year-old father in California has the right to visitation with his child, but his parents do not automatically have this same right. Similarly, teenage parents have the right to make all medical decisions for their child.
When teenage parents consider adoption for their child, the choice whether to place the child for adoption or to keep the child is theirs, and theirs alone. They also have the right to make all decisions regarding their child’s adoption, such as whether to have an open or a closed adoption.
Marriage Under Age 18
Unlike many other states, California does not have a minimum age for legal marriage. However, minors in California cannot marry without parental consent and a court order to complete the marriage. This is true for minors of both sexes. To obtain a court order to marry in California, a minor must complete these requirements:
- Appear before a judge to discuss the marriage.
- Attend at least one premarital counseling session.
- Provide a copy of his birth certificate when applying for a marriage license.
- Be accompanied by at least one parent or legal guardian when applying for a marriage license.
In 2018, the California legislature passed legislation that increased the restrictions on child marriage in the state. As of January 1st, 2019, minors must wait at least 30 days after obtaining a marriage license to wed unless they are high school graduates over age 17, or one of the partners named in the marriage license is pregnant. These restrictions were enacted amid widespread criticism of child marriage in California and throughout the United States. As of 2019, only two states, New Jersey and Delaware, have completely outlawed marriage for people under age 18.
Legal Age to Make Personal Finance Decisions
Typically, 18 is the legal age to make personal finance decisions in California. However, there are exceptions to this limit. One is the requirement that any individual under 21 have a cosigner who is at least 21 years old to open a credit card.
Although many private student loan providers require that any applicant under age 18 has an adult cosigner, minors may borrow money for higher education through federal student loan programs without having their parents cosign their loan applications. When a minor takes out a federal student loan without a cosigner, she is solely liable for repaying it, regardless of her age when she took out the loan.
Other rights and options that come with the legal age to make personal finance decisions in California are: opening a bank account, opening a brokerage account, retaining a financial advisor’s services, signing a lease and opening a retirement account. Additionally, anyone who is 18 years old or older and of sound mind may write a legally valid will and engage in other estate planning processes, such as granting a loved one power of attorney or creating an advance medical directive.
- Shouse California Law Group: California "Statutory Rape" Laws
- US News: Underage Marriages Get New Restrictions in California
- Saving for College: Age of Majority
- FinAid.org: FAQs About Financial Aid
- minimum-wage.org: California
- TeenSource: Accessing Services as a Minor
- Judicial Council of California: Emancipation
- The National Center for Youth Law: Teen Rights Cheat Sheet
Lindsay Kramer is a freelance writer and editor from New Jersey. She loves singing, laughing, cooking, and exploring new places. Aside from writing, Lindsay enjoys surfing and reading tarot cards.