When it comes to entertainment, kids are no longer in the minor leagues. Today, young actors are grabbing major roles—just look at Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, or the "Harry Potter" stars. Thus, understanding the laws regulating the employment of minors is becoming increasingly important for both the studio employer and the child.
Who's a Minor?
A minor is any person under the age of majority (18 in most states). However, the Screen Actors Guild and many states exclude those who've met mandatory state education laws, married persons, members of the military, and those legally emancipated by court order.
Certain states, including California (but not New York), permit minors who are at least 14 to petition the court to declare them emancipated—that is, independent from their parents or guardian, who are likewise released from responsibility. While emancipated minors possess more freedom than their peers, their legal rights vary by state. Famous emancipated minors have included Macaulay Culkin and Drew Barrymore.
Three Major Concerns
1. Contract enforceability. Under basic contract law, a minor may disaffirm (reject) a contract, even if the guardian has signed off on it. This potentially leaves the employer with significant losses. To allow studios certainty that their contracts won't be challenged, California and New York provide an exception for child entertainers. In those states, minors cannot disaffirm a contract if a court approves it prior to signature. In New York, the guardian commences the process by petitioning, on the child's behalf, the supreme or surrogate court in the county where the child resides. If the minor doesn't reside in New York, the proceeding may be brought in any county where the child is employed. Further, unless the child is emancipated, the guardian must sign off.
In California, the approval process for entertainment contracts involving minors is somewhat different. For instance, either the employer or the minor petitions the superior court in the county where the minor resides or is employed, or the county where either party maintains a principal business office. Since multiple courts may have jurisdiction, the parties must decide which state law is most beneficial. It is important from the employer's perspective that a minor's contract be court-confirmed, especially when the child has a speaking role in the production.
2. Trust accounts. California and New York mandate that the minor's guardian set up a blocked trust account (called a Coogan account in California), with a certain percentage of the child's earnings placed in it for the child's benefit. If the guardian fails to establish a trust or if the trustee fails to supply the employer with a photocopy of the trustee's statement within 180 days after employment starts, then the employer must forward 15 percent of the minor's gross income under the contract to the Actors Fund. The Actors Fund will then become the minor's trustee, and the employer will no longer be responsible for monitoring funds.
3. Permits. When it comes to employing minors, all states have labor laws, but California and New York have special entertainment-industry provisions requiring both the child and the employer to secure permits from the state labor department. The guardian must obtain the permit with approval from the local school district. Concurrently, the studio must file an application for permission to employ the minor, with proof of workers' compensation. Permits will be revoked or withheld if state officials determine that the minor's work or educational environment is improper.
Besides work permits, state labor department and SAG regulations limit child actors' work hours and require certain hours of schooling per day, depending on the child's age. Additionally, minors cannot participate in activities that are hazardous or involve safety risks. Other restrictions include allocated meal and travel periods, minimum turnaround times, and adequate teachers and educational facilities.
Finally, as laws vary by state, it's important to consult your local SAG office or state labor department for detailed information about specific regulations that apply.
– Nielsen Business Media