Parents have many responsibilities when it comes to their children. But they have important rights as well:
Custody and control: Parents must make important decisions about their children’s lives, such as where the children will live, what school they will attend, when medical care is appropriate and what, if any, religion they will practice. These rights are constitutionally protected and generally cannot be taken away unless it can be shown that the parents are unfit.
Cooperation and obedience: Parents are expected to control their children and are permitted to discipline them (not to the point of abuse or neglect, however). In some instances, children may run away from home, refuse to go to school or be beyond parental control. And, if the situation is extreme, the parents may seek to give up legal responsibility for the child. Or, if the parents fail to adequately control their child, a judge may determine that the child is in need of supervision and declare him or her a ward of the court. When this occurs, the court sometimes takes custody of the child and the responsibility for that child’s basic needs and education.
Children are not required to obey a parental order to do something dangerous or illegal. Parents who allow or encourage children to commit dangerous or illegal acts may be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, (Penal Code § 272), child abuse (Penal Code § 273a) or neglect. (Penal Code § 270)
Earnings: While most parents allow their child to keep his or her earnings, parents do have a legal right to such wages. (FC § 7500) There are exceptions to this rule, however. A child’s earnings may not be available to parents if:
- The parents have exploited, neglected or abandoned the child, and the child has brought suit to be freed from parental control. (Family Code § 7507)
- The child’s income is the result of his or her special talent or athletic ability (a child star or athlete). (Family Code §§ 6750, 6753)
- The child’s income is the result of a gift or inheritance. (Family Code § 7502; Probate Code § 3300)
Parental responsibilities: Parents’ most important responsibility is to support their children. They are legally obligated to provide their children with the necessities of life. (Penal Code § 270) Such necessities are not limited to food, clothing and shelter, but also include medical care. In addition, parents are expected to support their children according to their ability and station in life; this means that the children should share in both parents’ standard of living. (Family Code § 4053) This responsibility falls on both parents equally and applies to children’s adoptive parents as well. (Family Code § 9305) The failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter or parental care and supervision may lead to criminal prosecution for neglect. (Penal Code § 270)
If a county is required to support a child, it can seek reimbursement from parents who are capable, but have refused, to provide such support. (Welfare & Institutions Code § 11477) Parents also are required to reimburse the county for support costs incurred during the detention of a child under a juvenile court order. (Welfare & Institutions Code § 903) And parents must pay the county back for legal services provided to minors in juvenile court proceedings. (Welfare & Institutions Code § 903.1) The duty to provide support to children lasts until the child reaches the age of majority, usually 18, or 19 if the child is still enrolled in high school full-time. (Family Code § 3901)
The fact that a child’s parents are not married does not affect the parents’ responsibility to support their child. (Family Code § 3900) If parents are unmarried or divorced, and cannot agree upon how much each should contribute toward the support of their children, the courts may be called upon to decide. One parent, or the child through a guardian ad litem, may bring an action against the other parent to enforce the duty to pay child support. (Family Code § 4000) Alternatively, the county may proceed on behalf of a child to enforce the child’s right of support against a parent who fails to provide it. (Family Code § 4002) A judge may order one parent to make specified payments to the other for child support. (Family Code § 4500) The court’s authority to order a parent to pay child support or to enforce such an award includes the following: a writ of execution or levy (Family Code § 5100), a wage garnishment (Family Code § 5230), civil contempt proceedings (Family Code § 290) or criminal prosecution. (Penal Code § 270)
Note: A stepchild (a child from a prior marriage) is generally not entitled to support from a stepparent. (Family Code § 3900) Birth parents remain primarily responsible for child support unless the stepparent adopts the child. (Family Code § 9305) If, however, a stepparent or other person provides necessary support to a child in good faith (when the custodial parent neglects to do so), that person may recover the reasonable value of those necessities from the custodial parent. (Family Code § 3950) However, the natural parents, stepchild or state would not be required to reimburse such costs if the support was provided voluntarily, unless there was a specific agreement to do so. (Family Code § 3951)
Supervision and control of children: Parents may be morally responsible for supervising and controlling their children. However, parents generally are not legally responsible for the acts of their children. (Family Code § 6600) There are exceptions.
For example, parents who encourage their children to break the law may be found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. (Penal Code § 272) Also, parents who know or should have known that their child engages in improper conduct, or who aid or encourage such conduct, may be held liable for their children’s acts. There are specific statutes that hold parents liable for certain harm caused by their children:
Injuries from guns: Parents may be required to pay victims up to $60,000. (Civil Code § 1714.3)
Willful misconduct: If the child causes injury or death to another, or property damage, the parents are liable for up to $25,000. (This could apply to the parents of a child who commits an Internet-related crime, such as software piracy.) (Civil Code § 1714.1)
Destruction of property: Parents may be liable for sums that their children cannot pay, up to $50,000. (Penal Code § 594(b)(d))
Graffiti: Parents may be liable for the costs of removal, repair and/or replacement of property, and for keeping the property free of graffiti for up to one year. (Penal Code § 594(c); Government Code § 38772(b))
Tear gas injuries: Parents who have signed a minor’s consent form to obtain tear gas may be liable for the child’s negligent or wrongful acts or omissions. (Penal Code § 12403.8(c))
Truancy fines: Parents may be required to pay fines of up to $100. (Education Code § 48264.5(d)(2))
Injuries to another person on school grounds; damage to school property; failure to return borrowed school property: Parents may be liable for up to $10,000, and up to $10,000 for any reward. The school may withhold grades, diplomas or transcripts until these amounts are paid. (Education Code § 48904)
Shoplifting: If a child steals from a store or library, the parents may be responsible for up to $500 plus costs. (Penal Code § 490.5(b))
Curfew violations: Parents must pay the actual administrative and transportation costs incurred by the police for picking up and returning children to their homes on a second violation. (Welfare & Insitutions Code § 625.5(e))
Carl H. Starrett II has been a licensed attorney since 1993 and is a member in good standing with the California State Bar and the San Diego County Bar Association. Mr. Starrett practices in the areas of bankruptcy, business litigation, construction, corporate planning and debt collection.