Emancipation and Minor Guardianships

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid

Emancipation and Minor Guardianships to Prevent Runaways

Children are not allowed to make their own decisions. Instead, they rely on parents to help them make good decisions. However, sometimes a child’s parents are unable to make good decisions for them. Sometimes a parent is unable to overcome obstacles in his or her life, such as substance abuse, domestic violence, or mental illness. Under these circumstances, children often need to look for another adult, such as a relative or a family friend, to make decisions for them.

Also, an older child may want to go out on his or her own to get away from problems at home. To ensure children are safe or pursuing the best options, it is important to know what the law can do to help.
Three legal options may help children with problems at home:
  1. Durable Power of Attorney for a Minor Child;
  2. Guardianship for a Minor Child; and
  3. Emancipation of a Minor Child.
Durable Power of Attorney for a Minor Child
A Durable Power of Attorney for a Minor Child can be granted by a parent and gives another adult the ability to make decisions for the child if the parent is not available. Examples of when a Durable Power of Attorney would be useful could include an emergency, such as a parent being ill, or a parent being temporarily absent.
  • The document gives another adult the ability to make decisions a parent would usually make for a child. 
  • It can help the adult get benefits for the child like:
    • receiving state food assistance; 
    • getting a medical card for the child; 
    • enrolling a child in school; and
    • authorizing the child to receive medical assistance. 
  • Some of the benefits of using a Power of Attorney form include:
    • It does not terminate a parent’s rights for a child; and
    • It can be cancelled by a parent in writing at any time. 


A Guardianship is a legal action where a judge gives custody of a child to a responsible adult. This means the judge finds the parents are unable to care for their child. 

  • It is a very serious legal proceeding which parents should carefully consider before taking any action. 
  • It means a parent can no longer make decisions for the child—these decisions will now be made by the guardian. 
  • It also cannot be ended at any time by a parent--only a judge can terminate a guardianship. 
  • If the parents and the guardian cannot agree regarding when a guardianship should end, a hearing will have to be scheduled. 
  • A judge will make a decision based on what is best for the child. 
While guardianships are sometimes helpful to bring stability and some permanency into a child’s life, they may not always be the best option for a struggling parent.

Legal Emancipation
For a child at least 16 years old and able to make his or her own adult decisions, a legal emancipation may be an option. An emancipated child can make decisions on where they will live. The child would also be held responsible for any contracts signed and any actions taken. An emancipated minor would also be responsible for supporting himself or herself. 
To qualify, the child must be at least 16 years of age and one of the following:
  1. The parents agree to let the child live on his or her own; 
  2. The parents agree to let the child live out of the family home for at least 3 months, living on his or her own; or 
  3. The child can give reasons why the home of the parents or guardians is not a healthy or safe environment. 
For a court to grant an emancipation order, the child must also show they are self-sufficient. This includes:
  • Proof of employment (state, federal, or local government assistance does not count as employment);
  • Showing the child can handle his/her own personal matters; and
  • Showing the child is able and committed to going to school, a training program or employment.
In most cases, running away is not the best solution to problems in the home. There may be other  choices.  If you are a minor who is thinking about running away, stop and look at other ways to deal with the problem. For help seeing all options available, you may contact the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-786-2929. The line is open 24/7 and is meant to help the child or parents who call for more information. You may also visit their website at https://www.1800runaway.org/
  • Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 
    • To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275. 
    • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or 
    • apply online at iowalegalaid.org
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association 
*As you read this information, please remember it is not a substitute for legal advice. 
Last Review and Update: Mar 13, 2023
Back to top