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Let's say a minor (17 or younger) living with his parents gets a job or does chores, and with the money thereby earned, buys a video game console.

The parents decide that the console is not appropriate for the child and take it away. In fact, they sell it and put the money into their own bank account, with no plans to ever give it back to the child.

Setting aside any question of ethics or morality, is this legal on the part of the parents? If the police are called in, will they seek to charge the parents with a crime (such as theft)?

I am under the impression that there is no legal case here, as the parents are the custodians/guardians of everything for the child. Imagine a situation where the parents are very poor, and ongoingly need the fruits of their child's labor to simply put food on the table and pay for the electricity. In my mind, while parents should generally allow their children to own possessions and enjoy the fruits of their labor, they also have every right to take every last penny from their child if it is urgently needed for the basic good of the whole family.

When considering this situation, perhaps it would be easier for you to think of the purchased item as something most would agree is unhealthful for the child, though not necessarily illegal for him to possess—say, a book on how to construct a bomb or on how to commit suicide. Perhaps it is a chain saw, or a gun, or a set of lawn darts, or pornography, or anything else that most/many people would recognize is good for parents to take away from their minor children, no matter where the money came from or what previous recognition there was in the family of the item's belonging to the child. In this way, please try to avoid responding from any distaste about the parents violating your personal feelings about a child's rights, as this question is specifically about the law only.

I'd like to know if my impression here stands at odds with any laws or precedents that could inform me better.

If a more specific jurisdiction is needed, let's hear answers from Washington state, California, Florida, and Maine. Or chime in with a few other states, so we can get an idea of what the laws are throughout the nation. Feel free to add information on laws in other countries, as well, but please try to answer the USA question first.

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    This is a fairly broad-ranging question; a much narrower question would be, can a parent confiscate and sell their minor child's computer. In Washington, you can't own a car until you're 18 except for rare circumstances; that kind of stuff complicates the question. There's no law prohibiting minors from owning computers. – user6726 Nov 29 '17 at 23:30
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    I will remove the part about a car to make the question clearer. – ErikE Nov 30 '17 at 0:15
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The fundamental question is whether children can own property: they clearly can. See Cyclopedia of Law and Procedure (I improved the link so it can be more easily read).

As a general rule any property acquired by the child in any way except by its own labor or services belongs to the child, and not to the parent

McClosky v. Cyphert, 3 Casey (27 Pa.) 220

The right of an infant to be the owner of property is as clear and as well protected as that of a person who has arrived at full age. When anything is given to an infant to be held by him in his own right, he has the title to it, and the parent, guardian or master has in law no more right to take it (for any purpose beyond safekeeping) than a stranger.

Wheeler v. R. Co., 31 Kan. 640, 3 P. 297, 300:

As a matter of law a minor may own property the same as any other person. He may obtain it by inheritance, by gift, or by purchase; and there is nothing in the law that would prevent even a father from giving property to his minor child. A father may also so emancipate his minor child as to entitle him to receive his own wages. It is probably true that where a minor child lives with his father, and is supported by him, all things given to the child in the way of support, such as clothing, for instance, would still belong to the father and not to the child. But things given by the father to the child, not in the way of support, but with the understanding that they should become the property of the child, would, undoubtedly, become the property of the child.

Banks v. Conant, 14 Allen 497, the father

has no title to the property of the child, nor is the capacity or right of the latter to take property or receive money by grant, gift or otherwise, except as a compensation for services, in any degree qualified or limited during minority. Whatever therefore an infant acquires which does not come to him as a compensation for services rendered, belongs absolutely to him, and his father cannot interpose any claim to it, either as against the child, or as against third persons who claim title or possession from or under the infant.

However, a parent does have the right to prevent their child from using or acquiring a computer, car (also prohibited statutorily in Washington), television, cell phone; they can also prevent a child from spending their savings. Parents do retain their property right in things that they give to their children for general support and maintenance, such as a pair of shoes, or books.

There can also be specific statutes such as the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (Washington version) which partially recognize this right, making it easy for a person to transfer property to a minor, where the property is in the care of a custodian, but not owned by the custodian.

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    Objection to the label you gave it: merely whether a child can own property isn’t sufficient—that’s just a necessary condition. Your quoted case precedents go beyond ownership to parental rights as is necessary. Now it seems important to understand the scope and jurisdiction of these cases. Where were they heard? Are they of general applicability? Are they likely to be consulted or be binding in Washington state or California, etc.? – ErikE Nov 30 '17 at 17:52
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    Could a parent interfere legally with gift-giving to their children? Let’s say grandma wants to give $10,000 to Junior. Could the parents say “no—either give the money to us and we will administer it, or he can’t accept the gift”? Or is that another question? – ErikE Nov 30 '17 at 18:05
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    Hmmm I just noticed that in my question I specifically spoke about the child earning the money, not being given money or the item. This makes me wonder about the phrase "except by its own labor or services". Also, in Banks v. Conant, it says "except as a compensation for services". Is this referring to the parent charging for services, or is it the same as the former where a child's earnings can be taken by the parent, but not gifts to the child? – ErikE Nov 30 '17 at 20:17
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    Nice analysis of a very tricky question despite the fact that it is ubiquitous. – ohwilleke Nov 30 '17 at 20:34
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    Of course, even if you can’t take their PlayStation, you can deny them the right to use your electricity to power it – Dale M Nov 30 '17 at 21:03

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