What is emancipation of a minor?
As I understand it, in some states in the US, a minor (i.e. younger
than 18) who is at least 16 years old, can petition the state for
emancipation; i.e. legal separation from their parents, and allowed to
enter the world as a legal adult, despite being younger than 18.
However, in order to be granted this, the minor must prove that they
are capable of supporting themselves financially, that they have
somewhere to live, and a few other things.
This is true in some places, but not others.
There are two different concepts for emancipation under U.S. law, and most states follow one or the other.
One concept is that emancipation is a factual reality that exists when a minor is self-supporting or supported by a spouse or significant other, and not living in the household of a parent. In states that follow this concept, such as Colorado, a court ruling that a minor is emancipated is simply a finding of fact about what is, rather than a grant of permission.
Another concept is that a minor is, as a matter of law, not emancipated until a court grants minor permission to deviate from the status implied by their age. My understanding that this is the concept used in California.
In these jurisdictions, emancipation is granted only after an good faith attempt to give notice to the parents and a hearing, and involves an assessment of the capacity of the minor to be self-supporting without parental assistance and involvement. The question is focused on this concept, but it is not the only one and it is probably a close call as to which approach is the majority rule in U.S. states.
Even in "permission" states, however, entering military service or marriage usually results in emancipation as a matter of law without any formal court proceeding.
Common fact patterns
There are certainly cases in which the fact that a minor is married or living in the household of a significant other as a stay at home parent would establish emancipation.
Another fairly common fact pattern would be a employee whose employer also provides housing.
Another fairly common fact pattern is a situation in which the whereabouts of the minor's parents are unknown and the minor has, somehow, been managing. Sometimes you see this when a minor's parents die and the minor goes on in an isolated wilderness area, for example.
Adoption is indeed not an option
Adoption is not possible without a termination of the rights of the parents (or at least one of them in the case of a stepparent adoption).
The legal guardianship option
The preferred arrangement when living basically as a child in a supportive adult's household would usually be a guardianship, to the detriment of the parent's role in most decision-making for the minor, rather than emancipation. Here are some quotes from a recent case from Colorado (In re Interest of A.D., 2023 COA 6 (January 19, 2023)), with that fact pattern:
¶ 2 L.D. is the sole living parent of A.D., one of her three children.
A.D. was sixteen at the time of the guardianship proceeding. Although
L.D. and A.D. once shared a healthy relationship, it deteriorated
dramatically during the summer and fall of 2021. This deterioration
gave rise to Petitioners’ request for — and the district court’s grant
of — an unlimited guardianship over A.D. We turn to that history now.
¶ 3 In June 2021, A.D.’s car was vandalized while parked in front of
the family home. A.D. and his mother had a heated argument about why
it happened and who was responsible for cleaning it. Upset by this
conversation, A.D. went to stay at his girlfriend’s house. Although he
soon returned home, A.D. ran away from home five more times following
disagreements with L.D.
¶ 4 In early July 2021, L.D. gave A.D. an ultimatum: he could (1) go
to military school, (2) attend therapeutic boarding school, or (3)
abide by her house rules. A.D. ran away again that night, but this 2
time he spent over a month away from home, staying with his
girlfriend, couch surfing at friends’ homes, or sleeping in public
¶ 5 On August 7, 2021, A.D. was taken to the emergency room after
appearing to overdose while partying with friends at a park. The
hospital made a mandatory report to the Department of Human Services
(DHS). Once A.D. was stable, L.D. and V.T. (L.D.’s longtime colleague
and family friend) met with a DHS representative to discuss next
steps. L.D. agreed that, given the hostility between A.D. and herself,
and between A.D. and his two siblings (who both lived with L.D.), it
was in his best interest to stay with Petitioners.
¶ 6 On September 8, 2021, A.D. drove Petitioners’ car to L.D.’s house
for his first night back since early July. When he arrived, L.D.
became extremely upset that he had driven there. In her mind, A.D.’s
operation of a car — and Petitioners’ facilitation of it — violated
their agreement that he not drive until certain conditions were met.
The next morning, without notice to Petitioners or her son, L.D.
called the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and withdrew her
permission for A.D.’s driver’s license. The DMV revoked his license
the next day.
¶ 7 A.D. became enraged when he learned that his mother had revoked
her consent and subsequently sent a series of angry texts to her. L.D.
then blocked A.D.’s number, thus preventing A.D.’s calls or texts from
coming through to L.D.’s phone (though texts came through on her
¶ 8 On September 24, 2021, DHS facilitated an “adults only” meeting
with L.D., Petitioners, and DHS representatives. That meeting resulted
in three shared priorities: (1) Petitioners were to provide regular
updates about A.D. to L.D., who would, in turn, communicate with
Petitioners before making decisions affecting A.D.; (2) A.D.’s license
would be reauthorized within thirty days once to-be-defined conditions
were met; and (3) A.D. would be allowed to be on the high school
wrestling team, which all parties agreed was good for him.
¶ 9 Over the next month, Petitioners regularly emailed L.D. updates on
A.D. L.D. provided few, if any, responses to these updates.
Petitioners also sent L.D. a proposed plan for A.D. to get his license
back, but L.D. did not respond.
¶ 10 On October 20, 2021, Petitioners filed their petition for
appointment as A.D.’s guardians. L.D. objected to the petition, sought
dismissal of the action, and requested attorney fees.
¶ 11 On November 8, 2021, Petitioners requested that the court appoint
a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent A.D.’s interests. Over L.D.’s
objection, the court appointed a GAL pursuant to section 15-14-115,
C.R.S. 2022, after concluding that, owing to their disagreement over
the guardianship, the parties could not represent A.D.’s best interest
in the guardianship proceedings. The GAL represented A.D.’s best
interest throughout the litigation, and the court also instructed the
GAL to provide a report about whether L.D. was “unable to exercise her
¶ 12 On November 14, 2021, before Petitioners filed their reply, L.D.
— without consulting Petitioners or A.D. — revoked her permission for
A.D. to wrestle the day before the first day of practice. Why she took
this sudden action is unclear: L.D. testified it was because A.D. was
not maintaining passing grades, while another witness testified that
she wanted “leverage” over him to participate in family therapy.
Regardless, A.D. was devastated by the timing and nature of this
¶ 13 While these motions were pending, Petitioners continued to care
for A.D. Petitioners asked L.D. for permission to talk to A.D.’s
teachers, coaches, and doctors about how to better care for him. Yet
from August to early December 2021, L.D. refused to grant Petitioners
permission to engage with these individuals. She ignored or outright
refused to allow such communications until December 8, 2021, when,
after repeated requests from a DHS representative, she allowed
Petitioners to attend — but not participate in — a meeting with A.D.’s
¶ 14 L.D. also resisted Petitioners’ requests for financial support
for A.D.’s care. To her credit, L.D. provided A.D. with $25 per week
for groceries. These funds came from A.D.’s $1,800 monthly
survivorship benefit, which was established following the death of
A.D.’s father when A.D. was three. Petitioners knew the benefit
existed and requested more financial support. L.D. did not respond to
¶ 15 Except for the text exchange between L.D. and A.D. following the
revocation of L.D.’s consent for A.D.’s license, L.D. and A.D. never
communicated directly. Instead, all such communications went through
Petitioners or DHS.
¶ 16 Consistent with section 15-14-205(1), C.R.S. 2022, the district
court conducted a hearing on Petitioners’ guardianship motion. The
hearing spanned two days, with both sides calling numerous witnesses.
¶ 17 In a written order, the court granted Petitioners an unlimited
guardianship over A.D. In so doing, the court concluded that
Petitioners had proved by clear and convincing evidence that L.D. was,
consistent with section 15-14-204(2)(c), “unwilling or unable” to care
for A.D. and that the guardianship was in A.D.’s best interest
notwithstanding his mother’s opposition to it.
The linked appellate court decision then goes on to conduct legal analysis and affirms the trial court's ruling as correct. The official syllabus of the case summarizes that part of the opinion as follows:
A division of the court of appeals reviews the guardianship
appointment for a minor under section 15-14-204(2)(c), C.R.S.
2022. In so doing, the division adopts the analytical framework outlined in In re Parental Responsibilities Concerning B.J., 242 P.3d
1128 (Colo. 2010). Applying that framework to section 15-14-
204(2)(c), the division concludes that the moving party must prove, by
clear and convincing evidence, that the parent is (1) “unable or
unwilling” to exercise their parental rights, and (2) the guardianship
is in the best interest of the minor notwithstanding the parent(s)’
opposition to the guardianship. Moreover, in entering such an order,
the court must articulate the “special factors” it relies upon to justify this interference with parental rights. See
Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).
Utilizing that framework
here, the division concludes that the court did not err in appointing
a guardian for the minor.