Can a Minor Enforce a Contract?

“Can a minor enforce a contract?” That’s an easy one. Yes. The more difficult question is, “Can I enforce a contract against a minor?”

There is no rule of law prohibiting a minor from entering into a contract, but the general rule is that the contract cannot be enforced against a minor. There are, of course, exceptions.

In Nevada, the age of majority, i.e. the age at which a child becomes an adult, is 18. NRS 129.010. At 18 years old, a person is “capable of entering into any contract, and [is] to all intents and purposes, held and considered to be of lawful age.”

Certain contracts, by their very nature, are enforceable, even against minors.

Ratification

If someone enters into a contract when they are underage, but then turn eighteen, they can, at their option, ratify the contract.

The plea of infancy is a personal defense, which, after coming of age, one may or may not interpose. The general doctrine is that the note of an infant is voidable, not void, and may be ratified after he comes of age.

W.M. Barnett Bank v. Chiatovich, 48 Nev. 319, 232 P. 206, 214 (1925)

Ratification occurs when either the new adult makes an affirmative statement or action to do so—like paying another month’s rent on a year-long lease—or by failing to disaffirm the contract within a reasonable time. Thus, ratification can be express or implied by word or conduct.

Necessaries

If a minor contracts for “necessaries,” that contract is enforceable against the minor. Necessaries include food, clothing, shelter, and other items necessary for survival, including some services for betterment, like schooling.

That is not to say that any food, clothing, or shelter is considered a “necessary.” This is a fact-intensive inquiry. A child who no longer wants to live at home and rents an apartment two blocks from his parents’ may not be contracting for necessary housing, whereas a student who moves to a different town and leases an apartment to attend school probably is. A contract to purchase a pair of shoes is probably necessary in most cases, but not if it they are purchased to include in a modern-art collage.

Military Purchases

Debts incurred in conjunction with purchase made through the GI Bill are enforceable for minors and their spouses. NRS 129.020.

Certain Medical Expenses

A minor who incurs debt for medical treatment is obligated to pay that debt if the minor

  • is living apart and has lived apart from parents for 4 months;
  • is married or has been married;
  • is a mother or has borne a child; or
  • is in danger of serious health conditions if not treated.

NRS 129.030.

Nevada’s Catch All

Apart from the specific exceptions above, Nevada has one common-law principle, which has not been applied by the Nevada Supreme Court since 1930, that requires a minor to adhere to a contract that is advantageous to the minor: “It is a distinctive principle in the law of contracts, supported by reason and numerous precedents, that an infant’s contracts when beneficial to him will be held to be binding.” Schmidt v. Horton, 52 Nev. 479, 290 P. 1023, 1024 (1930).

The same court in the same case, in a different written opinion, expounded on the principal:

The facts bring the case within an exception to the general rule. The privilege which the law accords to infants [minors] of disaffirming their contracts under certain conditions is for the purpose of their protection, and in so far as it serves that purpose is a just and necessary rule. But the privilege ought not in justice to be preserved where, instead of serving as a shield to one of immature judgment and discretion, it is used as an instrument of oppression. More particularly is this true where, as in this case, such other was at the time of his contract himself under the age of majority, and the contract entered into advantageous to all parties. In other words, the facts show a case where the reason of the rule fails entirely. It is a trite expression of a principle of universal application that, when the reason of a rule fails, the rule itself is not applicable. We hold therefore that the defense of infancy is not available in this case.

Schmidt v. Horton, 52 Nev. 302, 287 P. 274, 280 (1930).

 

Zachariah B. Parry is an attorney and founding partner at the law firm Parry & Pfau and is an adjunct professor who teaches torts, contracts, and Nevada practice and procedure for UNLV’s paralegal program. He can be reached at 702-912-4451 or zach@p2lawyers.com.