Will Smith’s son may be able to joke about legally emancipating himself from his famous parents, but for the majority of kids, there’s nothing funny about it.
Jaden Smith, who co-stars with his father in the upcoming film After Earth, made headlines this week for suggesting that he wanted to divorce his mom and dad so he could have his own home. He was quick to clarify later that he wasn’t actually considering making it official. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told Ellen DeGeneres.
Good thing—because he wouldn’t have been able to buy a house anyway. “Emancipated minors can’t buy a home or sign a lease,” says Amy Lemley, a lawyer and policy director for the John Burton Foundation, a nonprofit for homeless children. “They can’t even rent a car. And you can’t work for a wage that will sustain you economically unless you’re a child star.”
For reasons like this, Lemley says, cases of normal children filing for emancipation from their parents are extremely rare, and the courts discourage it strongly. “Very few juvenile courts will allow a child to even file for emancipation,” Lemley says. “Our system is just not set up for emancipated minors.” If a child is being abused or mistreated, Lemley says, and they have nowhere to go, they will be removed from their home by Social Services and placed in the foster care system.
Emancipation is considered such a last-resort option that Lemley and Jacqueline Caster, the founder and president of Everychild, a women’s philanthropic organization for children, helped pass a bill in California that allows minors in the foster care system to stay put until they’re 21 instead of 18, allowing them three more years of being dependents.
Of course, in this respect and in so many others, rich kids are different. In 1996, when Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin filed and won emancipation from his parents at age 16, claiming that they had mismanaged his money, he walked away with a $17 million fortune and fabulous career prospects. Likewise, when stars like Alicia Silverstone, Eliza Dushku, and Laura Dern legally extracted themselves from their parents, they were all doing so in order to skirt child-labor laws and work longer hours on the TV shows and movies that were paying them so well.
Drew Barrymore, who had her breakout role at 7 years old in E.T. and who was a regular user of cocaine by age 13, emancipated from her actor parents at 15. Though she had a troubled childhood, she had the money and connections to support herself when most others couldn’t.
“I did what I had to go get [emancipated],” Barrymore said during a 60 Minutes interview, “which was play by the rules and refigure out my life and disconnect myself from the people I knew and the lifestyle I knew and prove that I was a responsible citizen with a good head on my shoulders.”
Courtney Love, on the other hand, emancipated herself at age 16, long before she gained fame as a rock star and actress. She worked as a stripper to pay the bills and was able to go to college only with a small trust fund left to her. (In an ironic twist, her daughter with the late Kurt Cobain, Frances Bean, legally emancipated herself from Love in 2011 with a large inheritance that allowed her to pursue a career as a model and artist.)
For everyone who’s not famous, Lemley points out that the general trend is in the U.S. has been for children to live with their parents farther into adulthood than ever before. Health-care reform has allowed young adults to stay on their parents’ health-insurance coverage through age 26, an opportunity thousands have taken advantage of.
Melissa Francis, a former child actress on Little House on the Prairie, told Fox she regrets emancipating herself from her parents as a teenager. “I didn’t have a driver’s license. How would I get to school? I wasn’t organized enough at 15 to pay the rent, manage my schedule, go on auditions, work and take care of my basic needs,” she said.
Some children don’t have a choice. In 2012, 30,000 children emancipated from their foster care homes, a number that is increasing. Lemley says those children face higher rates of incarceration, homelessness, and mental illness.
Still, Lemley says she still receives calls from kids seeking a legal recourse to get out of their foster care homes. Her answer is simple.
“Our guidance is that you need your foster care placement changed,” she says, “The answer is not to go at it alone.”