What Are the Laws on Teenagers Leaving Home?

teen runaway

The teen years are filled with angst and a touch of drama, as teenagers push against the boundaries their parents place on them. Many may even occasionally dream of what it would be like to live on their own, or at least with the "cool family" down the street. For most teenagers, these are just fantasies, but for others, the desire and need to leave is very real.

When Can Teens Leave Home Legally?

Teens may legally leave home when they reach the age of majority. The age of majority in most states is 18 years old, except for the following:

  • In Alabama and Nebraska, the age of majority is 19.
  • In Mississippi, the age of majority is 21.

If a teen chooses to move out of his parents' house when he reaches the age of majority, he will be legally responsible for his support and maintenance. If a teen is still attending high school when he reaches the age of majority and continues to live with his parents, they are obligated to continue to support him until he completes high school.

Teen Runaways

The National Runaway Switchboard reports that 30 percent of teens run away, and they do so for a variety of reasons including:

  • Family dynamics
  • A desire for more freedom
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Alcohol and drug use (either by the teens or their parents)
  • Sexual orientation

Runaway Criteria

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention defines a runaway as a child who meets one of the following criteria:

  • Leaves home without his parent or guardian's permission and stays away overnight
  • Is 14 years of age or younger, away from home with his parent or guardian's permission, but chooses not to return and stays away one night
  • Is 15 years of age or older, away from home with his parent or guardian's permission, but chooses not to return and stays away two nights

Is It Legal to Run Away?

The laws regarding runaway teens differ among states. In most states, running away from home is not a crime, which means that the teen cannot be put in prison, although he can be held in police custody until he can be returned to his family. For example in Michigan, although the legal age of majority is 18, the court has no jurisdiction to force a teen runaway under the age of 17 to return home, so it is unlikely that the police would even get involved.

In other states, like Texas, running away is considered a status offense. The teen may be forced to return home, held in a detention center until his parents can pick him up, or even put on probation by a judge.

Teens are considered homeless if they run away and are:

  • Not located
  • Live in a state where they cannot be forcibly returned to their parents
  • Not placed in a youth home or detention center

What If the Teen Is Abused?

Many teens run away from home to escape physical or emotional abuse. These teens are treated differently than those who run away simply because they want more freedom or dislike the rules imposed by their parents.

Reasonable Cause

In Virginia, for example, a teen is considered a runaway if he leaves home "without reasonable cause." So a teen who ran away because he was physically abused would have reasonable cause for leaving home, and would be classified as a child in need of supervision, rather than a runaway. Instead of being returned home, the teen would be placed with another family member, adult friend, or a foster or group home.

Placed in a Safe Home

In Maine, the Department of Health and Human Services is called for all runaway cases, regardless of the reason. If DHSS believes that returning a child to his home would cause him harm, or if the teen does not agree to being returned to his parents, then DHSS can obtain temporary custody and place the teen with another family member, adult friend, or in a foster or group home.

Tell an Adult

Of course, a teen who runs away due to abuse must tell a trusted adult the reason he ran away from home to not be forcibly returned to his parents. If a teen is being abused, contact the 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). The teen (or a concerned third-party) can also make a report to child protective services, which will investigate the allegations of abuse and remove the teen from his home if necessary.

Other Ways Teens Can Legally Leave Home

There are other recourses teens have besides running away or simply waiting until they get old enough to leave.

Legal Emancipation

Emancipation is a legal process that gives a teenager the right to legally move out of his parents' home. In these instances the child is said to be emancipated from his parents. There are three ways a teen may become legally emancipated from his parents:

  • Marriage - A teen may become legally emancipated when he gets married.
  • Military Service - Enlistment in any branch of the armed forces will cause a teen to become legally emancipated.
  • Court order - The court may grant an order of emancipation if it determines that emancipation is in the child's best interests.

Emancipation is difficult to achieve but, if awarded, gives the child the same legal rights and responsibilities as an adult, with limited exceptions. The parents of an emancipated teen are no longer obligated to provide any type of financial or physical support to the teen.

Transfer of Guardianship

A teen may be able to successfully transfer legal guardianship from his parents to another adult. The guardianship can be permanent or temporary (usually less than one year). Once appointed, the guardian will have the same rights and responsibilities regarding the teen's care as the parents, including providing financial support. Transfer of guardianship does not completely sever the parents rights, and they may still be financially responsible for contributing to the teen's care.

Transfer of guardianship is easiest if the parents consent. If the teen's parents do not consent, the proposed guardian will have to file a petition in court and prove that it is in the teen's best interests to be placed in the guardian's care. The parents can contest the guardianship in court, which can result in a potentially long, drawn out process.

Custody Modification

In the case of a teen whose parents are divorced, it may be possible for the custody agreement to be modified so that he can live with the non-custodial parent full-time. If the parents agree to the custody change, the process is as simple as filing a custody modification with the court. If everyone is in agreement, the judge will usually sign the order.

If both parents don't agree to the custody modification, the non-custodial parent must file a petition to modify custody in court. In order for the judge to grant the modification, he must find that the modification is in the teen's best interests.

State Variations

It is important to remember that the laws governing a teen's right to leave home varies from state to state. There are differences regarding:

  • The age of majority
  • Whether and how he can become emancipated
  • How to have a third-party guardian appointed

Before initiating any proceedings, make sure you consult with a licensed attorney who has experience dealing with these issues.

Seek Counseling Before Leaving

The teen years are often filled with friction. However, leaving home is a drastic measure that, except for cases of child abuse, should be undertaken only as a last resort. If there are problems with teens in your home, consider seeking professional help from a licensed counselor instead who can help try to mend the family relationship.

What Are the Laws on Teenagers Leaving Home?