PR 07105.028 Missouri

A. PR 04-057 Your request for legal opinion on the emancipation age in the state of Missouri; Jacqueline W~,

DATE: July 17, 1997

1. SYLLABUS

The opinion settles an inquiry regarding the emancipated age in the state of Missouri. A child beneficiary, age 17, applied for direct payment of her Social Security benefits. Her mother, and then, representative payee, protested explaining that the child was not capable of managing her own benefits. Evidence showed this child was supporting herself and still attending school; the FO determined that she was capable of managing her own benefits and thus placed her in direct pay. The opinion concluded by indicating that based on the analysis of Missouri law, they believe it is likely that Missouri courts would determine the child emancipated.

2. OPINION

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.

Factual Background

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 2003.

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 details.

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.

Analysis

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.

Conclusion

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

By___________
Sean N. S~
Assistant Regional Counsel


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PR 07105.028 - Missouri - 03/31/2004
Batch run: 01/27/2009
Rev:03/31/2004