(This post is part of the series on postsecondary education.)
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I want to lay out some more facts to consider before we delve into the question, "What makes a child emancipated?" At what point is a child "on his own," no longer bound by the requirement of obedience to parents, and under the expectation to provide for his own material support instead of asking it from his parents?
The problem from a legal, secular sense, in the United States, is that we have a patchwork of overlapping standards when it comes to the question of when a child is "free" from his parents. Let's take a look.
Emancipation of minors is a legal mechanism by which a minor is freed from control by his or her parents or guardians, and the parents or guardians are freed from any and all responsibility toward the child...
Children are minors, and therefore under the control of their parents or legal guardians, until they attain the age of majority, at which point they become adults. In most states this is either 18 years old, or requires the person be either both 18 and out of high school or at least 20 years old. However, in special circumstances, minors can be freed from control by their guardian before turning 18.
Besides attaining the age of 18, marriage or entry into the military generally legally emancipates an under-18-year-old. There is some variation in state law.
We're going to keep it simple here, so for the time being we will not consider special circumstances, and for the purpose of our argument, we will say that at age 18, or marriage, or entry into the military, a child is freed from legal control by his parents and parents are freed from compulsory material support of the child.
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But besides the strict legal consideration of who can be forced to support whom, and who can be forced to obey whom, we have other standards in place that suggest "dependency" is more complicated than that.
Take the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) requirements for dependency. The FAFSA is the form that prospective college students have to fill out so that the government and other institutions can figure out what are their material resources available to pay for college. This number is used to determine how much need-based aid the student is eligible for.
Recall that after a child turns 18, a parent is not legally required to provide any material support for a child. However, when it comes to figuring out how much material resources the child has in order to calculate eligibility for need-based aid, the child is counted as a dependent (as if the parents' wealth is available to him) long past age 18. Here are the requirements for dependency in the context of the FAFSA determination:
Dependency According to FAFSA
According to the link above,
An independent is anyone who:
- is 24 years of age or older by December 31 of the award year.
- is an orphan or ward of the court or was a ward of the court until the individual reached the age of 18.
- is a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States.
- is a graduate or professional student.
- is a married individual.
- has legal dependents other than a spouse.
- is [under age 18 and is] an emancipated child as determined by a court judge.
- is a student for whom a financial aid administrator makes a documented determination of independence by reason of other unusual circumstances.
Anyone who does not meet these requirements is a dependent.
With regard to whether a child might be determined a non-dependent by reason of unusual circumstances:
Typically the FAFSA determines you are a dependent if you receive half of your income from your parents.
And note that you may still be a dependent according to the FAFSA even if you file a tax return as a non-dependent.
This is very relevant, because it demonstrates that we have a social expectation that prospective students under the age of 24, even if legally emancipated, should be able to call on their parents' resources when paying for post-secondary education -- that before they ask for a handout from the federal government, or from many institutions which offer need-based aid, they should use available resources from their families of origin.
We don't, actually, compel the parents to provide those resources (that's what the legal emancipation at age 18 means). But we take the existence of those resources into account, not just the resources that the 18-to-24-year-old actually controls.
Now, if you've ever been an 18-year-old whose family is too wealthy to qualify for need-based aid, but whose family refuses to provide any material support for post-secondary education, this is going to feel pretty unfair. But it's pretty clear, from the FAFSA definition of dependency and from the social pressure implicit in water-cooler conversations about college bills, that the onus to rectify that apparent unfairness is on the resource-rich but reluctant parents, and not on need-based financial aid programs either run by governments or by institutions.
In short, society generally expects parents to provide some material postsecondary educational assistance to 18-to-24-year-olds. Some parents may disagree ("When you turn 18, you're on your own") but they seem to be in the minority, or at least not to have exerted enough political power to normalize this philosophy. I think it's generally seen as a valid position to hold, but I don't think many people hold it.
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There is no doubt that providing a means to pay for health care is a form of material support, and if you have to pay for your own health care out-of-pocket or pay for your own insurance policy, you are "supporting yourself" more than if you can remain on your parents' insurance policy. Who's eligible to be a dependent for the purposes of determining who's covered by a health insurance policy?
To simplify, let's just look at one set of standards: those set by the PPACA ("Obamacare") and subsequent regulations. I'm getting this from here (pdf).
Definition of “Dependent” Who is Eligible for Coverage:
An [insurer] must base eligibility for dependent child coverage in terms of the relationship between the child and the [subscriber] and may not deny or restrict coverage based on factors, such as financial dependency on the [subscriber], residency with the [subscriber], student status, employment, marital status, or [except for a grandfathered-in exception that ends in 2014] eligibility for other coverage...
Plans and issuers are not required to make coverage available for the children or spouse of a child receiving dependent coverage...
The terms of the plan or insurance coverage providing dependent coverage cannot vary based on the age of the child, except for a child who is age 26 or over.
So under this relatively recent legislation, an insurer must extend dependent child coverage to an 18-to-25-year-old son or daughter of a subscriber, exactly as it extends coverage to a subscribers' children who are younger than 18. It doesn't matter if the young adult is married, or a student, or employed, or living somewhere else. After 2014, it won't matter if he or she is eligible for some other employment-based health insurance.
So here's a situation where, at least according to the evidence enshrined in national legislation, we no longer expect a 26-year-old to fend for himself or herself.
Does this impose a choice on the parent to incur a personal cost in order to benefit 18-to-25-year-old offspring? It depends. If the parent already has an employee-plus-dependent-children insurance plan for other reasons (for example, because there are younger children living at home), it doesn't cost the parent any more money to provide coverage to the 18-to-25-year-old offspring. But if there aren't any younger children around, the parent does incur a cost to keep the 18-to-25-year-old offspring on his or her insurance plan, because if the parent didn't do that he could probably switch to a cheaper employee-plus-spouse-no-dependent-children plan. Or maybe he could retire and cover his health costs some other way besides employer-provided health insurance. So we're looking at a situation where the parent might incur a cost in order to continue supporting 18-to-26-year-old offspring, or might choose not to incur that cost and force the offspring to fend for himself or herself.
Transportation: Automobiles and Automobile Insurance
A common kind of support that is provided by many parents to their offspring over age 18 is use of a family car, which requires somebody to pay for auto insurance. Unlike with health insurance, there is "no certain age set across the insurance industry at which offspring are no longer eligible to stay on a parent's policy." Instead, the usual requirement to include offspring on a parent's auto policy is residency. If the individual is living in the parents' home, she can be included on the policy. If she has established her own household, she cannot be included on the policy. Students who live away at college but who maintain the parents' address as their "permanent" address often still count as "living with their parents" for the purposes of determining eligibility to stay on the parent's policy. Sometimes the car has to be in the policyholder's name; sometimes all that's necessary is that the owner of the car reside in the same household with the policyholder.
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So here we have a variety of different "standard" definitions of who is a dependent and who is emancipated. One thing is certain: at age 18, you are legally free of the control of your parents, and your parents are legally free of the requirement to support you materially.
But other standards seem to imply that, even though we don't compel it, we have a social expectation that young adults require support, and we have a social expectation that parents provide some kind of support according to their means -- until some combination of the following factors:
- the offspring attains the age of 24 or 26
- the offspring is married
- the offspring moves out of the house AND is not attending college
- the offspring enters the U. S. military
- the offspring enters graduate or professional school
- the offspring has children of his/her own
- the offspring demonstrates self-support and that no support is forthcoming from parents
Other legal ages of majority
These vary a lot state by state. Here are some for my home state, Minnesota:
- The age at which a person is legally competent to consent to sexual activity is 16.
- The age at which a person can be tried in criminal court is 14.
- The age at which a person can be married, with parental consent, is 16. Without parental consent, it's 18.
- The legal drinking age is 21.
Subjective emancipation -- The tricky question
Still, though, these are all rather arbitrary conditions. Why 18, or 24, or 26 -- and not 16, or 28? Those are all just numbers. Why entry into the military, and not landing your first full-time job? There may be good reasons to pick some of these rites of passage over others, but they are not inherently determiners of the one quality that matters when it comes to the moral requirements of parents towards offspring: readiness to embark on independent adult life and to fulfill the duties of one's vocation.
Parents can't guarantee that their offspring (even assuming normal intelligence and physical/mental health) will acquire all the skills that an adult human being should, not even if they throw all their best efforts at the task. That's because the young person is a person, with free will, and -- news flash -- persons with free will sometimes decide not to cooperate, or come up with their own lists of "necessary skills." So even if there comes no point when a parent can say , "You are done, I did my job" -- there must eventually be a point when a parent can rightfully say "I am done -- I did the best I could, and now it's your turn to finish your growing and education on your own -- if you choose to."
The question is, how do you know when either has happened?