Can a 17-Year-Old Legally Move Out? Everything You Need to Know.

Teenagers who want to live independently of their parents may consider moving out. Is it legal for teenagers to move out without their parents’ permission?

In the United States, the legal age of majority is 18. To legally move out of your parent’s house, you must be eighteen (18) years old. Becoming emancipated is the only legal way for a minor to leave the family home without parental consent. Most state laws classify a minor who leaves home without permission as a runaway. 

Most teenagers want to be free. They want to live their own lives, make their own decisions, and live by their own rules. Sometimes exceptional circumstances, like abuse, neglect, or a hostile home environment, may cause teenagers to want to move out of their parents’ house. Whether a 17-year-old can legally live independently depends on the state where the teenager lives and their situation.

What is the Legal Age of Majority?

The age of majority is the age at which an individual will legally be considered an adult. The age of majority is the age at which a person will be subject to the full legal rights and responsibilities of an adult, including the right to vote, the right to join the military, or the right to sign a contract.

When people turn 18, they are fully responsible for their actions and the contracts they sign. In the United States, most states have set the age of majority at eighteen (18).

In most states, it will be illegal for teenagers to move out of their parent’s homes and live independently until they reach the age of eighteen (18).

Exceptions When a Minor Can Move Out Before Turning 18

Forty-seven (47) states and Washington, D.C. have laws that set the age of majority at eighteen (18). Five states have different ages of majority. In Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey, and Nebraska, the age of majority is nineteen (19).

Mississippi has the highest age of majority in the United States. The age of majority in Mississippi is twenty-one (21) years old.

In Missouri, the law allows teenagers to move out at age seventeen (17). In Missouri, a 17-year-old will not be considered a minor if he runs away from home, even if his parents file a missing person report. See 43.400 RSMo. Under the law in Missouri, even if their child has left home, the parents are still responsible for their child until the child reaches the age of eighteen (18).

Some states have exceptions to the rule that you must reach the age of majority before leaving home without parental consent. In some states, teenagers can move out without parental consent if they are married, have a job, or are enrolled in college.

Is it Illegal for a Teenager to Run Away From Home?

Running away from home is categorized as a “status” offense in a small number of states. A status offense is an act that violates the law solely because a child is a minor. Truancy, curfew violations, drinking while underage, and being “ungovernable,” or outside the control of parents or guardians, are further status offenses. For status violations, penalties might include counseling, education, license suspension, fines, restitution, and placement with a non-parent or guardian.

Can a 17-Year-Old Be Arrested if They Run Away From Home?

The first question many 17-year-olds ask is whether they can be arrested if they move out of their home without their parent’s consent.

In general, the police are authorized to take a person over seventeen but not yet eighteen into custody if the person has been reported as “missing.” The fact that a child reported as missing is seventeen and has left home voluntarily does not mitigate an officer’s duty to take possession of the child.

Under the laws of most states, the age of majority is eighteen (18) years old. Under those laws, a parent or legal guardian has the right to physically take care of and set up a home for a child who is not yet 18 years old.

Therefore, under the laws of most states, a parent or guardian has a right to physically possess an unemancipated seventeen-year-old (17) who has left home without the parent’s or guardian’s permission.

This issue was addressed by the United States Supreme Court in 1995. The issue in the case was whether a teenager had a constitutional right to choose where to live. The court ruled against the teenager. The Court said that an unemancipated 17-year-old’s constitutional rights are not as great as an adult’s rights. The Court ruled that minors are subject to the control of their parents and guardians.

“Unemancipated minors lack some of the most fundamental rights of self-determination — including even the right of liberty in its narrow sense, i.e., the right to come and go at will. They are subject, even as to their physical freedom, to the control of their parents or guardians.” Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47Jv. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 654 (1995).

In most states, the police have the right to arrest and detain a seventeen-year-old (17) who has left home without their parent’s consent.

What Happens if a Minor Gets Arrested for Moving Out Without Parental Consent?

In most states, running away is not a crime. Instead, it is a status offense. If a missing person report has been filed, the police can take a teenager into custody. When the police take a runaway into custody, they have several options, including:

  • Take the teenager back home.

  • Persuade their parents to permit them to temporarily stay with friends or family.

  • Calling Child Protective Services if abuse is suspected.

  • Placing them with a runaway shelter, or

  • Having the teenager held at a juvenile detention facility.

Parents can report a runaway to the police at any time. Federal Law prohibits the police from establishing a waiting period before accepting a runaway-child report. When a child is reported as missing, the police enter the child’s name and physical description into the National Crime Information Computer (NCIC).

If a teenager is running away because of an abusive situation and does not want to return home, they should tell the police about the abuse. The police will take any complaint of child abuse seriously. All states require the police to report child abuse to Child Protective Services for investigation. If abuse is occurring, the child will not be sent home. Instead, the child will be placed with a relative, in temporary foster care, or in an emergency shelter.

What Happens if Child Protective Services is Called in for a Runaway?

If the police send a teenage runaway to Child Protective Services (CPS), CPS will decide where the child should be placed. If CPS determines that a 17-year-old is at risk of abuse or neglect in their family home, CPS will have to decide if returning to the family home is in the child’s best interest.

Most children who come to the attention of the child welfare system remain at home, receiving various services to protect and support the family.

One benefit of keeping the child in the family homes is that it allows them to remain in the same school with access to familiar teachers, friends, religious groups, coaches, and sports teams. All these can help support teenagers’ mental and emotional health.

However, if a child must be removed from their family home because of abuse or neglect, CPS will place the child in the least restrictive, most family-like environment available. This is usually a relative if a relative is available.

If a child cannot be placed with a relative, most states place teenagers with foster families. Foster families are intended to be temporary placements until a permanent placement can be found. A teenager placed in foster care will continue to attend school. While in foster care, the teenager’s family will receive services with the goal of having the child returned to the family home.

Some states will place teenagers into a group home if the teenager needs emotional and behavioral treatment.

What is a Parent’s Responsibility Until the Child Turns 18?

Suppose a teenager moves out before their eighteenth (18th) birthday, and the parent does not file a runaway person report. In that case, the parent will continue to be responsible for and can be held liable for any legal troubles, medical problems, or unpaid bills associated with the teenager until they turn eighteen (18).

What Options Does a 17-Year-Old Have When Thinking of Leaving Home?

Teenagers who are considering running away from home need to understand their options. The streets are dangerous, and very few teens who have run away continue their education or find safe and legal employment. Teens who are homeless often abuse drugs and alcohol, suffer from mental illnesses, and commit crimes. 

If you’re a teenager considering running away from home, here are some safe, legal alternatives:

  • If you have a safe relative, call them and open up a line of communication. If you have a trusted and responsible grandparent, aunt, uncle, or older adult sibling, this is the first place you should consider going. They can discuss the situation with your parents and discuss the next steps.

  • If things calm down, you can consider returning home. A lot of runaway teens return home within a couple of weeks. Get in touch with the local police or a homeless shelter if you have run away and need help returning home.

  • Discuss filing for legal guardianship. In guardianship proceedings, another adult who is not the parent of the child asks the court if they can have of the teenager until they turn 18. If a court grants guardianship, the guardian will have many of the same obligations as a parent, such as raising the child and making sure they attend school. 

  • File for dependency. Whenever a teenager files for dependency, the court is designated as the child’s guardian and decides about the child’s living arrangements. Often, the court or the state’s child protective services department will provide family reunification services like therapy or place the child in foster care. 

  • File for emancipation. In most states, when a teenager reaches the age of 16 or older, they can file a request for emancipation from their parents. When a teenager files a petition for emancipation, they are indicating that they are to be able to take care of all of their own needs. Emancipated teenagers must demonstrate that emancipation is in their best interests, that they can lawfully support themselves, and that they will continue to attend school. In most states,  emancipation requires consent from the child’s parents.

If you are considering filing for emancipation or want to learn more about the process of emancipation, you will not want to miss this article that outlines everything you need to know about the emancipation process.

Help if You are Thinking of Running Away

Minors who leave their homes are not always runaways. Minors who have been compelled by their parents or guardians to leave their homes without alternative care planned are referred to as throwaways. If you are considering running away, here are some resources you can call.

For homeless and runaway youth, the National Runaway Safeline (NRS) acts as a communication channel. For runaways, their parents, and guardians, NRS offers free, private guidance and referrals to regional agencies in all 50 states. Call 1-800-RUNAWAY right away if you need help.

People experiencing a crisis related to suicide, substance abuse, or mental distress can call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. It is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for free, in confidence. Call or text 988 to speak with a qualified counselor who can assist. Any emotional problem can be text messaged using Crisis Text Line. Text “HELLO” to 741741, and you’ll be put in touch with a qualified crisis counselor. It is totally free, always open, and confidential.

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Tim McDuffey is a practicing attorney in the State of Missouri. Tim is a licensed member of the Missouri Bar and Missouri Bar Association.

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