You requested a legal opinion regarding the emancipation laws in the state of Missouri.
Based on the facts provided in the request for an opinion, we believe that it is likely
that a Missouri Court would find that Jacqueline W~ is emancipated.
Your memorandum indicates that Jacqueline W~, who is 17 years old, sought direct payment
of her Social Security benefits in October 2003. At that time, Mary H~, Ms. W~' mother,
was her representative payee. Ms. W~ reported that she had not been in her mother's
care since June 2003 and had not received any money from her mother since February
Mrs. H~ called the field office on October 15, 2003, demanding to know where Ms. W~
was living. In the course of the phone call, Charles H~, Mrs. H~'s husband, alleged
that Ms. W~ was bipolar, on mediation, on the run, and being sexually abused by her
boyfriend in the woods. He also indicated that Ms. W~ was not attending school. Mr.
H~ indicated that the authorities were looking for Ms. W~, but would not provide any
According to the memorandum, Ms. W~ has been living with her boyfriend's family and
has not received any support from her mother since June 2003. The field office made
a determination that Ms. W~ was capable of handling her own benefits. Ms. W~ had supported
herself since moving out of her home. She was initially living in Washington, Missouri
until her parents located her. She then moved to Union, Missouri to avoid contact
with her parents. The field office received verification from Ms. W~' high school
that she was not living with her parents and that she was still attending classes.
Ms. W~ is now her own payee.
Program Operations Manual System (POMS) GN 00502.070 directs that if a child is emancipated under state law, he or she is capable of managing
his or her own benefits. Because Ms. W~ was domiciled in Missouri, it is necessary
to evaluate her status under Missouri law. Missouri common law dictates that emancipation
is never presumed and the burden is upon the party asserting emancipation. See Sparks v. Trantham, 814 S.W.2d 621, 624 (Mo. Ct. App. 1991) (citing In re Marriage of H~, 535 S.W.2d
276, 279 (Mo. Ct. App. 1976)). Missouri courts have held that emancipation occurs
when a minor child is freed from the care, custody, control, and service of her parents.
See Dowell v. Dowell, 73 S.W.3d 709, 712 (Mo. Ct. App. 2002). A minor child may be emancipated in three
ways: by express parental consent, implied parental consent, or by a change of the
child's status in the eyes of society. See Dowell, 73 S.W.3d at 712 (citing Denton v. Sims, 884 S.W.2d 86, 88 (Mo. Ct. App. 1994)). Although the third category usually refers
to a child who has married or joined the military, it may also be met by a child who
is physically and mentally able to care for him or herself who voluntarily chooses
to leave the parental home and attempts to "fight the battle of life on [her] own
account." Dowell, 73 S.W.3d at 712 (quoting Specking v. Specking, 528 S.W.2d 448, 451 (Mo. Ct. App. 1975)). See also Brosius v. Barker, 136 S.W. 18 (Mo. App. 1911). "[A]s a general rule the fact that a child has entered
into a relation which is inconsistent with the idea of his being in a subordinate
situation in his parent's family is sufficient to effect an emancipation." Dowell, 73 S.W.3d at 715 (quoting Wurth v. Wurth, 322 S.W.2d 745, 747 (Mo. 1959)).
The facts you have presented are similar to those found in Dowell. In Dowell, a 17-year-old and her baby moved into the home of her boyfriend, the baby's father.
They presented themselves as an independent household. The 17-year-old stayed at home
with the child while her boyfriend worked. The 17-year-old was receiving food stamps
and Medicaid benefits for her infant son. The 17-year-old's mother was opposed to
the arrangement, but took no action to stop it. The Missouri Court of Appeals noted
that a person under the age of 18 did not need to be totally self-sufficient and decline
all offers of financial assistance from others in order to be emancipated. See Dowell, 73 S.W.3d at 715. The Dowell court found that the 17-year-old was emancipated, which ended her father's responsibility
to make child support payments. Id. at 717.
lso instructive is the case of Randolph v. Randolph, 8 S.W.3d 160 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999). In Randolph, a minor left her parents' home after an argument and moved in with her boyfriend,
eventually living with relatives of her boyfriend. After several months, the minor
and her boyfriend moved into an apartment together and she soon became pregnant. The
minor daughter returned home after a total absence of approximately seven months.
In Randolph, the minor was given money by her parents to stay in a hotel. Neither of the minor's
parents gave express or implied consent when the minor moved out of the home. Rather,
the parents did everything within their power to keep the minor from leaving. The
Court evaluated whether the minor's status changed in the eyes of society and noted
that the minor moved frequently and that her living arrangements during her time way
from home resembled that of a runaway rather than a young adult trying to make it
on her own. Id. at 164. In addition, the Court noted that the minor's parents provided significant
financial support during her absence including paying for prenatal care, groceries,
and car repairs. Id. at 164-65. The entire family was also in counseling together. Id. at 165. The Court noted that the evidence showed that the minor was unable to take
care and provide for herself. Id. In addition, the Court found that there was reason to question the voluntariness
of the length of time the minor was away from home. Id. The Court found that due to the transient nature of the minor's living arrangement,
the continued financial support afforded to her by her parents, and the ongoing family
contact, that the minor in question was not emancipated and therefore her father's
obligation to pay child support continued. Id.
In the present case, it is clear that Ms. W~' parents gave neither express nor implied
consent for Ms. W~ to leave their home. Indeed, Ms. W~' parents were eager to find
out where she was living. Therefore, Ms. W~ would be considered emancipated by Missouri
courts only if she is physically and mentally able to care for herself, voluntarily
chose to leave the parental home, and is attempting to "fight the battle of life on
[her] own account." Dowell, 73 S.W.3d at 712. Although Ms. W~' parents indicated that she was bipolar, on medication,
being sexually abused by her boyfriend, living in the woods, and on the run, the field
office determined that Ms. W~ was capable of handling her own benefits. It appears
that Ms. W~ chose to leave the house on her own accord. Thus, the determining factor
in this case is whether Ms. W~ was "fighting the battle of life on her own account."
Id. at 713.
Based on the facts presented, this situation appears more similar to Dowell than Randolph. Ms. W~ told agency representatives that she was supporting herself and attending
high school. This fact was verified by officials at Ms. W~' high school. She received
no money or support from her parents and had no ongoing contact with her parents.
Although she moved once due to problems with her parents, she did not appear to be
living the life of a runaway. She is living with her boyfriend's family. Although
Ms. W~ is not completely self-sufficient, Missouri courts have held that an emancipated
individual need not be totally self-sufficient and decline offers of help from others,
even from his or her parents. See id. at 715 (quoting Sparks v. Trantham, 814 S.W.2d 621, 625-26 (Mo. Ct. App. 1991)). Nothing in the material submitted for
review indicates that Ms. W~ wants to return to live with her parents. On the contrary,
Ms. W~ has taken action to avoid contact with her parents. Further, Plaintiff took
the initiative to apply as her own payee, similar to the minor in Dowell who applied for food stamps and Medicaid. That Court found that a minor's pursuit
of benefits for her own use was a factor that supported a finding of emancipation.
Dowell, 73 S.W. 3d at 717. Therefore, we believe that it is likely that a Missouri court
would find that Ms. W~ has entered into a relation that is inconsistent with the idea
of her being in a subordinate situation to her family. This would support a finding
that Ms. W~ was emancipated.
Based on our analysis of Missouri law, we believe it is likely that Missouri courts
would determine that Jacqueline W~ was emancipated.
Frank V. S~
Chief Counsel, Region VII
Sean N. S~
Assistant Regional Counsel