I forget how this came up, but in the course of a conversation about all the crap we own as a family, Max wanted to know who actually owns the iPod he received as a Christmas gift. Could I take it away whenever I wanted? Could I sell it and keep the money? Was it really his? My initial thought was, yes, I could do whatever I wanted with his stuff because (trying to dredge up vague memories of property law and family law classes) children do not generally have property rights except through parents or guardians. Boy was I wrong.
What’s great, though, is that one of the best sources on the blawgosphere for a discussion of children’s property rights is the terrific Law and the Multiverse, a blog about superheroes, supervillains, and the law. In a post last year about child superheroes known as the Power Pack, a reader asked:
Aliens gift the Power Pack children with superpowers, costumes, and a sentient robot. Don’t their parents technically own these gifts?
As the Multiverse’s James Daily replies, “surprisingly, the answer is no.” Daily goes on to cite two cases concerning children’s property rights, which can be boiled down to this, at least in relation to children who receive superpowers and a sentient robot as gifts: a parent does not have title to his or her minor child’s own property, except where a specific law provides otherwise. Thus, a kid can “acquire and own property in his or her name alone, and a parent lacks authority to sell the minor child’s interest in property except as provided by law.”
I actually cannot improve much upon the answer given by Law and the Multiverse, particularly when you read the comments and clarifying questions and hypotheticals from other readers. For example, one reader asks:
so does this mean that if a parent punishes a child by taking the child’s toys away, that’s actually theft?
The answer, at least legally and hypothetically, is yes, though as readers point out the practicality of bringing a successful theft, conversion, or any other legal claim is pretty dubious. But we’re talking an iPod here, not 1,000 shares of stock or even a horse, the property at issue in the cases Daily cited on Law and the Multiverse.
In Minnesota, where we live, a parent can legally claim a kid’s wages but cannot by law claim money in a minor’s solely-held bank account. There do not appear to be any other specific Minnesota laws limiting the common law right of a child to acquire and own property, though real property (i.e, real estate) may be a bit more complicated. While the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) and the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) can be used to provide gifts to kids that are then controlled by a custodian, who in their right mind would invoke UGMA or UTMA to give a kid an iPod? Besides, gifts through UTMA or UGMA don’t change the fact that the kids own the gifts.
So, then, who actually owns Max’s iPod? He does, independently of me or his mom. It was a gift, and I’m not aware of any other specific law that essentially transfers ownership of the iPod back to me because I happen to be his parent. Feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.
Sure, I can threaten to take it away from him if he spends all his time playing World of Goo and neglects his math homework. But, especially after Max reads this, he’ll now respond with “go ahead, Dad, you’ll be hearing from my lawyer.” Legally he’s on solid grounds. Practically? Not so much.