In most states, the age of majority (when a person is recognized by law as an adult), is 18 years of age or older. A “minor” is a person who is under the age of 18. When a minor breaks the law or causes damage or injury to another person, an animal or property, the minor’s parents may bear the liability. Many state statutes authorize courts to hold parents financially responsible for the damages caused by their minor children. Some states may even hold parents criminally liable for failing to supervise a child whom they know to be delinquent.
Parental Liability for Minors
In general, minors are liable for their misdeeds. However, when a minor acts intentionally or negligently in a manner that causes harm to another, it is difficult to collect damages from the minor. In such a situation, the minor’s parents may also be held liable for their child’s acts and/or ordered to pay for them. A “parent” can be anyone exercising parental authority over the child, but typically refers to the “custodial” parent. Although they vary widely by state, most parental liability laws target intentional, malicious or reckless behavior and exclude pure accidents. Parental liability stems from the custodial parents’ obligation to supervise and educate their children.
Several states refer to children who are born or adopted after the execution of a parent’s will and omitted from the provisions of the testamentary instrument as “omitted” or “pretermitted” children. In the interest of fairness, states that recognize the inheritance rights of posthumously born or adopted children have traditionally allowed “omitted” children to inherit under intestate succession (i.e., taking a share equal in value to what the child would have received if the testator had died without a will).
Parents of Injured Children and Recovery of Consortium Damages
Although “loss of consortium” damages are traditionally associated with spousal relationships, modern cases have extended the right to recover them to parent-child relationships. Referred to as “filial consortium damages,” these awards are intended to compensate the parent for the loss of affection, love and companionship that results from a child’s injury or death.
Wrongful Death Actions Distinguished
In cases where parents sue for the wrongful death of their child, most jurisdictions permit parents to recover filial consortium damages from the wrongdoer. Parents can generally recover these damages under the state’s wrongful death statute.
The situation is much different, however, in cases where the child survives. Under these circumstances, although the child may have suffered severe permanent injuries, state law varies significantly with respect to the availability of filial consortium damages. As a general proposition, most states do not recognize parents’ claims for lost consortium when the child survives.
Majority of States: No Filial Consortium Damages for Non-Fatal Injuries
A majority of jurisdictions do not permit parents of non-fatally injured children to recover filial consortium damages. The following examples reflect the status of the law in several states:
- In 2003, the Texas Supreme Court declined to extend a claim for loss of consortium to the parents of a child with a non-fatal injury. As such, Texas does not permit parents to recover loss of consortium damages resulting from a child’s serious injuries.
- In 1988, Michigan’s highest state court held that a parent has no cause of action for loss of consortium damages when a child is negligently injured. However, the parent is still entitled to sue for loss of services as well as medical expenses.
- In 1986, the Wyoming Supreme Court similarly rejected a parent’s right to consortium damages resulting from serious injuries to a child.
Some States Allow Parents to Recover for Non-Fatal Injuries
A substantial minority of jurisdictions authorize parental recovery of consortium damages for injured minor children. In some states, parents may recover under a statute which expressly sanctions such damages. In other states, however, parents must rely on case law and judicial interpretation to recover filial consortium damages.
Though not an exhaustive list, the following states permit a parent to recover loss of filial consortium for non-fatal injuries:
- A Massachusetts statute sets forth the following rule: “The parents of a minor child or an adult child who is dependent on his parents for support shall have a cause of action for loss of consortium of the child who has been seriously injured against any person who is legally responsible for causing such an injury.”
- In 1994, the Florida Supreme Court expressly ruled that a parent has a common law right to recover for loss of an injured child’s consortium, stating “The loss of a child’s companionship and society is one of the primary losses that the parent of a severely injured child must endure.”
- In 1986, the Arizona Supreme Court granted parents the right to recover consortium damages from a third party who permanently injures their adult child. The court expressly refused to limit loss of consortium damages in severe injury cases to cases involving minors: “Loss of consortium is a compensable harm, and we see no basis for limiting this action solely to cases of wrongful death [and] no reason for limiting the class of plaintiffs to parents of minor children when the parents of adult children may suffer equal or greater harm.
Minors have no legal capacity to manage property. Thus, transferring property and other assets to minors can be problematic. For example, parents or other adults may wish to convey a small amount of property to a minor without investing the time and expense of establishing a trust.
Another option is to set up a custodianship for the minor. Under a custodianship, the transferring party names a custodian and transfers the property into an account in the minor’s name. The custodian holds and manages the custodial property for the benefit of the minor. A custodial account is irrevocable and belongs to the minor as the owner.
Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA)
The Uniform Transfers to Minors Act of 1986 (UTMA) was passed in order to eliminate some limitations of the earlier Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA). All states have adopted some form of the UTMA or UGMA. The UTMA provides a convenient method of allowing the transfer of property to minors without setting up a trust.
In a custodianship, an adult custodian holds and manages property for the benefit of a minor child until that minor is old enough to receive the property. A UTMA transfer is irrevocable, and the custodian must relinquish the property to the minor as soon as they reach the age of majority, which varies by state (usually 18 or 21, sometimes 25)
Generally, a couple who divorces or legally separates must make a determination regarding the physical and legal custody of their children and visitation rights, either by mutual agreement or court order. When an established child custody arrangement no longer works or is no longer desired, one or both parents may seek to modify custody. Where a parent is seeking to modify custody through the courts, the parent must generally be able to show that there has been a substantial change in conditions which warrants the modification.
California Weighs Lesbians' Parental Rights
California's highest court was asked Tuesday to create a legal framework for what constitutes a family as justices weighed parental rights for lesbian couples who broke up after having children.
The state Supreme Court, hearing oral arguments in the cases of three women seeking child custody or support from their former partners, pondered whether children from same-sex households should be treated the same under the law as out-of-wedlock offspring of heterosexuals.
Attorneys for some of the women and the California attorney general argued that children should be given the same protections they would have with two traditional parents, since gays cannot marry and may have legitimate reasons for not registering as domestic partners or formally adopting their children.
They urged the court to apply long-standing laws governing absent fathers to estranged gay and lesbian couples who used reproductive science to conceive, a practice that leaves one partner without a genetic link to the family.