What Are the Laws on Teenagers Leaving Home?

Teenagers push against the boundaries their parents place on them during their teen years, which are filled with drama and angst. It is not uncommon for people to fantasize about living on their own, or at least with the “cool family” down the street. Teenagers often fantasize about leaving, but for others, the desire and need to leave are very real.

When Can Teens Leave Home Legally?

When teens reach the age of majority, they are legally allowed to leave home. States with the following exceptions have an 18-year-old majority age:

  • There is a 19-year-old majority age in Alabama and Nebraska.
  • There is a 21-year-old majority age in Mississippi.

When a teenager reaches the age of majority, he will become legally responsible for his support and maintenance if he moves out of his parents’ house. When a teen reaches the age of majority and continues to live with his parents, they are obligated to support him until he has completed high school.

Teen Runaways

According to the National Runaway Switchboard, 30 percent of teens run away for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Dynamic of the family
  • Freedom is something we all desire
  • Neglect or abuse of children
  • Use of alcohol and drugs by teens and their parents
  • The sexual orientation of an individual

Runaway Criteria

As defined by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a runaway child is a child who meets one of the following criteria:

  • He leaves home without his parent’s permission and stays away overnight
  • Under 14 years of age, but refuses to return home after staying away from home one night with permission from his parents or guardians
  • Is 15 years old or older, away from home with his parent’s or guardian’s permission, but chooses not to return after two nights

Is It Legal to Run Away?

States have different laws regarding runaway teens. Running away from home is not a crime in most states, so a teen cannot be imprisoned if he runs away from home, but he can be held in police custody until he can be returned to his family. Although Michigan’s legal age of majority is 18, the court does not have jurisdiction to force a teen runaway under the age of 17 to return home, so police are unlikely to even get involved.

Other states, such as Texas, consider running away a status offense. Depending on the circumstances, a judge may place the teen on probation, return him home, or hold him in a detention center until his parents can pick him up.

Runaway teens are considered homeless if they are:

  • This location is not available
  • In a state where their parents cannot be forcibly reunited with them
  • Neither placed in a youth home nor detained

What If the Teen Is Abused?

Physical or emotional abuse is a common reason for teens to run away from home. Unlike teens who run away simply because they want more freedom or do not like their parents’ rules, these teens are treated differently.

Reasonable Cause

When a teen leaves home “without reasonable cause,” he is considered a runaway in Virginia, for example. A teen who fled because of physical abuse would be classified as a child in need of supervision rather than a runaway, as he had reasonable cause to leave home. 

It is more likely that the teen will be placed with another family member, an adult friend, or a foster or group home, rather than being returned home.

Placed in a Safe Home

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services responds to all runaway cases, regardless of their cause. In situations where DHSS believes returning a child to his home would harm him, or if the teen refuses to return to his parents, the agency can obtain temporary custody and place the teen with another family member, adult friend, or in a foster or group home.

Tell an Adult

In order to avoid being returned to his parents forcibly, a teen who runs away from home due to abuse must tell a trusted adult the reason he ran away. Contact 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) if you suspect a teen is being abused. 

It is also possible for a teen (or a concerned third party) to report abuse to child protective services, which will investigate the allegations and, if necessary, remove the teen from his home.

Other Ways Teens Can Legally Leave Home

In addition to running away or simply waiting until they are old enough to leave, teens have other options.

Legal Emancipation

Emancipation is the legal process by which a teenager can legally move out of his parents’ home. A child who has been emancipated from his parents is said to be emancipated. Teenagers may become legally emancipated from their parents in three ways:

  • When a teen gets married, he may become legally emancipated.
  • A teen who enlists in any branch of the armed forces becomes legally emancipated.
  • A court may grant an order of emancipation if it determines that it is in the child’s best interest.

When granted, emancipation gives the child the same legal rights and responsibilities as an adult, with some exceptions. A teen who has been emancipated is no longer obligated to receive financial or physical support from his or her parents.

Transfer of Guardianship

There is a possibility that a teen can successfully transfer legal guardianship from his parents to another adult. Guardianships can be permanent or temporary (usually less than one year). In addition to providing financial support, the guardian has the same rights and responsibilities as the parents regarding the care of the teen. 

It is important to note that the transfer of guardianship does not completely sever the rights of the parents, and they may still need to contribute financially to the teen’s care.

Consent of the parents is required for the transfer of guardianship. If the teen’s parents do not consent, the proposed guardian will have to file a petition in court and prove that the placement is in the teen’s best interests. 

It is possible for the parents to contest the guardianship in court, which can lead to a potentially lengthy and drawn-out process.

Custody Modification

Teenagers whose parents are divorced may be able to modify their custody agreement so that they can live with the non-custodial parent full-time. It is as simple as filing a custody modification with the court if both parents agree to the change. In most cases, the judge will sign the order if everyone is in agreement.

It is the non-custodial parent’s responsibility to file a court petition to modify custody if both parents are not in agreement. A judge must find that the modification is in the best interests of the teen before granting it.

State Variations

The laws governing teenagers’ right to leave home vary from state to state. Among the differences are:

  • When a person becomes a majority
  • The possibility of his emancipation and how to achieve it
  • Third-party guardianship: how to appoint one

Be sure to consult a licensed attorney who has experience dealing with these issues before initiating any proceedings.

Seek Counseling Before Leaving

Teenage years are often filled with friction. Leaving home is a drastic measure and should be undertaken only as a last resort, except in cases of child abuse. Consider seeking professional help from a licensed counselor instead if you are experiencing problems with teens in your home.

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