Age of Majority

by Mary Mazzoni on June 26, 2011

Age of majority is a legal term with big implications for our kids.

“The age of majority is the threshold of adulthood in law.  It is the chronological moment when a child legally ceases to be considered a minor.  After attaining the age of majority, a person assumes control over their persons, actions and decisions.” - U.S.

Let’s unpack this big concept, one bit at a time.

Laws Vary by State

Age of majority is 18 in most, but not all states.  The specific legal rights of eighteen-year-olds vary from one state to another.

According to federal law, the voting age is 18 in all states.  Males must register for selective service at age 18.

Emancipation, the end of parental rights and responsibilities, may occur before the age of majority in specific situations (such as marriage or military enlistment).

The age at which a person can enter into a binding contract may or may not correspond to the age of majority.

It’s important to understand your state’s age of majority laws.

Click here to find links that will take you to age of majority related information for each state.

Presumption of Competence

A person who has reached the age of majority is presumed to be a legally competent adult.

Adults have the right to full control of their persons, their decisions and their actions under law.  This includes all areas of life – medical, legal, financial, educational, living arrangements, relationships, etc.

The legal status of adulthood also includes full legal responsibility, such as contract liability.

Also, privacy laws prohibit most private and public entities from sharing any information with parents about their adult child’s affairs without his or her written permission.

Are They Ready?

I don’t know about you, but I made some unwise choices when I was 18 years old.   Despite our best efforts to prepare our kids for adult life, most young adults need some continued guidance as they navigate this new and exciting period of their lives.  They will make mistakes.  But we encourage them to come to us and to other trusted adults for input before making important decisions.

Some young adults have very significant intellectual or other developmental disabilities that impact their capacity to exercise their full adult rights and responsibilities.  As parents, we are concerned for their safety and well being in medical, financial and legal matters.  We need to understand and carefully discern options for supporting our kids once they reach the age of majority. Our choices should not be based on fear, but on a thorough understanding of options in relation to the individual needs of our adult child.

Because a person who has reached the age of majority is presumed competent by law, a legal intervention is required to in any way limit that person’s adult rights.  Examples include:

  • Power of attorney or advanced directives, in which an adult signs a legal document that entrusts another person with the right to make specific types of decisions on their behalf.
  • Partial or full guardianship or conservatorship – which require a legal proceeding to determine the person incompetent to exercise specific adult rights and responsibilities.

These alternatives will be addressed in a future post.  They are complex and they have serious implications.  It is crucial to make fully informed decisions that are tailored to the unique needs, preferences and best interests of an individual.  A position statement about guardianship and its alternatives by the ARC of the United States can be found here

Age of Majority and Educational Rights under IDEA

In some states, parents continue to have the right to make educational decisions for their children until high school graduation.  Even after the child reaches age of majority.  In other states, the right to make educational decisions immediately  transfers from the parent to the student at age of majority.

IDEA requires that in states where educational rights transfer to high school students, notice of this fact must be given to both parents and student 12 months before the date on which the student reaches age of majority.

If parents are concerned about the student’s ability to make informed educational choices, they can seek options to retain parental rights to make educational decisions while the student is still in high school. These may include power of attorney or legal guardianship.  Some states offer a third, simpler means for parents to retain educational decision rights for their high school child who has reached the age of majority.

Click here for a Parent Brief by the National Center for Secondary Education and Transition on the topic of IDEA and age of majority.

Need to Learn and Practice Self Determination Skills

We want our kids to be safe.  And we want them to have quality of life. Which means the opportunity to make choices based on what is important to them. This is called self determination.

There are many, many skills involved in self determination.  And it takes years for kids to learn and practice them.  As they grow, we give them more and more opportunities to practice making their own choices and plans and speaking up for themselves.

It can be a messy process. And it doesn’t necessarily end on their 18th birthday.  Kids will make choices we don’t agree with.  Sometimes they make mistakes and are disappointed when things don’t work out the way they planned. That’s part of growing up.  And it can be hard on us, as well as our kids. But, regardless of our children’s disabilities, we want to give them more and more opportunities to be self determined. Before they reach the age of majority.

Check out the self determination section of this site for ideas about how you can help your child learn and practice self determination skills.

Meanwhile, do you have any comments to share about age of majority?

Image Credit: Stephen Stacey at Stock.xchng

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