This article may be expanded with text translated from the corresponding article in the German Wikipedia. (May 2013)
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The age of majority is the threshold of adulthood as it is conceptualized (and recognized or declared) in law. It is the chronological moment when minors cease to legally be considered children and assume control over their persons, actions, and decisions, thereby terminating the legal control and legal responsibilities of their parents or guardian over and for them. Most countries set majority at 18. The word majority here refers to having greater years and being of full age; it is opposed to minority, the state of being a minor. The law in a given jurisdiction may never actually use the term "age of majority" and the term thereby refers to a collection of laws bestowing the status of adulthood. The age of majority is a legally fixed age, concept, or statutory principle, which may differ depending on the jurisdiction, and may not necessarily correspond to actual mental or physical maturity of an individual.
Although a person may attain the age of majority in a particular jurisdiction, he or she may still be subject to age-based restrictions regarding matters such as the right to vote or stand for elective office, act as a judge, and many others.
Age of majority can be confused with a similar concept, the age of license, which also pertains to the threshold of adulthood but in a much broader and more abstract way. As a legal term of art, "license" means "permission", and it can implicate a legally enforceable right or privilege. Thus, an age of license is an age at which one has legal permission from government to do something. The age of majority, on the other hand, is legal recognition that one has grown into an adult.
Age of majority pertains solely to the acquisition of control over one's person, decisions and actions, and the correlative termination of the legal authority and responsibility of the parents (or guardian(s), in lieu of parent(s) over the child’s person and affairs generally).
Many ages of license are correlated to the age of majority, but they are nonetheless legally distinct concepts. One need not have attained the age of majority to have permission to exercise certain rights and responsibilities. Some ages of license are actually higher than the age of majority. For example, the age of license to purchase alcoholic beverages is 21 in all U.S. states. Another example is the voting age, which prior to the 1970s was 21, while the age of majority was 18 in most states. In the Republic of Ireland the age of majority is 18, but one must be over 21 years of age to stand for election to the Houses of the Oireachtas. Also, in Portugal the age of majority is 18, but one must be at least 25 years of age to run for public office. A child who is legally emancipated by a court of competent jurisdiction automatically attains to his or her maturity upon the signing of the court order. This is distinct from the legal process by which a child might be taken into foster care and/or made a ward of the court. Foster care and court wardship do not confer maturity upon the child so separated from his or her parents (or guardians). Only emancipation confers the status of maturity before a person has actually reached the age of majority.
Almost all jurisdictions automatically confer emancipation (and with it, the status of majority) upon otherwise minor individuals who are married. Some do likewise for minors who are on active duty in the armed forces.
Scotland (Under the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Act 1991, a 16-year-old has the full legal capacity to enter into any legal agreement. However in Scottish law, the contract is classed as a "prejudicial transaction" until they are 18. The legal test being would a prudent adult have not entered into such a contract, and whether the person has been prejudiced by entering into such a contract.)
^Although the age of majority in New Zealand is 20, most rights granted at the age of majority in other nations, such as emancipation from parents, marriage without parental permission, ability to enter into a binding contract, and voting are granted at 18.