Laws to Remember When You Legally Become an Adult at 18

African female teenager blowing out the candles on her 18th birthday cake, surrounded by family

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Eighteen is a milestone birthday to celebrate. It's when you enter official adulthood for the first time, gaining great privileges along with serious legal implications. It's important to understand the changes that happen at this important time.

Legal Changes at Age 18

At 18 years old, you can vote, buy a house, or even get married without restriction in most states. On the other hand, you can also get sued, gamble away your tuition through online poker, or make terrible stock market investments.

At the age of 18, you are legally considered an adult in nearly every state in the union.

It's good to review the basic age requirements when you're about to turn 18 so that you know what you can and can't get away with. For example, depending on the service, an 18-year-old may either not be able to rent a car or have to pay a "young driver" surcharge, but he or she can buy one.

However, a parent may need to co-sign on a loan if he or she doesn't have a solid work or credit history yet, which is likely. An 18-year-old can also buy and sell real estate and stock, inherit property, enter into binding contracts, or unfortunately, get sued.

New Consequences After Turning 18

Minors are less likely to face major legal consequences for smaller acts of lawbreaking, like throwing toilet paper up in a neighbor's trees or shoplifting inexpensive items, but those same crimes are more likely to land an 18-year-old in jail.

While there are cases in which a minor will be tried in criminal court as an adult, an adult always will be and face harsher punishment as a result. Even some minor drug possession charges that may have been overlooked at 17 can lead to jail time at 18.

It's also especially important for 18-year-olds to understand legal consequences if they are still in high school or are surrounded by younger friends.

Jury Duty and Taxes

In addition to voting, 18-year-olds are eligible for jury duty and are responsible for paying taxes on time. This means that, depending on income, dependent status, and state of residence, an 18-year old may have to file a tax return.

Young men must also register with the National Selective Service. Failure to register could cost teens a $250,000 fine and/or five years in jail, plus the loss of student loans and any federal or state employment. Those that need to register can pick up a form at the post office or register online.

Driving Without Restriction

Some states have graduated driving laws that restrict the hours and terms under which new and young drivers can get behind the wheel. At 18, most of these driving restrictions are lifted. When driving, adults can chat on a hands-free cell phone, drive in the middle of the night, and carry passengers.

Sexual Misconduct

Unfortunately, statutory rape laws change dramatically from state to state. What is permissible in some places means jail time in others. Therefore, enforcement is unpredictable and the age of consent varies considerably from state to state.

In one case, a 17-year-old was sentenced to 10 years in state prison for having oral sex with a 15-year-old. This is particularly important for 18-year-olds to understand, as they may be dating someone younger than them, which is common in high school.

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4 Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. Publication 929 (2019), Tax rules for children and dependents. Updated March 2020.

  2. Selective Service System. Who needs to register. Updated 2020.

  3. Bates LJ, Allen S, Armstrong K, Watson B, King MJ, Davey J. Graduated driver licensing: An international review. Sultan Qaboos Univ Med J. 2014;14(4):e432-41.

  4. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Statutory rape: A guide to state laws and reporting requirements sexual intercourse with minors. Updated December 2004.