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Rotunda Report
  • Rotunda Report
    June 26, 2023

    Turning 18 and the Law

    Turning 18 marks a new stage of life for many young people, complete with new legal rights, privileges, and responsibilities. This brief guide helps young people and parents to navigate this exciting new landscape.

    Happy teenagers smiling and posing for pictureJune 26, 2023 – June is an unmistakable month in Wisconsin. Greenery abounds and state parks fill with happy campers. The smell of grilled brats fills neighborhood streets. Summerfest fills Milwaukee’s air with music. And all across Wisconsin and the wider nation, a new cohort of young people graduate from high school and look forward to the next chapter of their lives. Whether that means preparing to attend college or technical school, finding employment or becoming a trade apprentice, enlisting in military service, or simply taking a bit of time off, their 18th year marks the start of a young person’s new life as an adult.

    This issue of Rotunda Report serves as a brief guide to help young people (and their parents!) navigate the exciting new landscape of legal rights and responsibilities of the “age of majority.”

    What are some of the rights you gain after age 18 (as a U.S. Citizen) that you didn’t have before?

    • Vote in federal, state and local elections
    • Run for and hold local or state public office
    • Participate in jury service

    Most people* age 18 or older, regardless of citizenship, can generally do the following:

    • Marry without parental or legal guardian consent
    • Make a valid estate plan
    • Work for pay
    • Obtain a driver’s license (must be a U.S. citizen, legal permanent resident, or conditional resident)
    • Apply for credit in your own name
    • Sue in your own name
    • Make a contract (i.e., rent an apartment, buy a car, take out a loan) in your own name
    • Buy lottery tickets, legally gamble (except for most casinos), and get a tattoo

    What are some of the responsibilities people have after age 18 that they didn’t have before?

    • You may be sued by others for property damage or bodily injury that you cause (for example, in a car accident that was your fault)
    • You may be sued by others on contracts you make
    • All males are required to register for the selective service (military draft)
    • Criminal charges will be tried in adult criminal court rather than juvenile court. This begins at age 17 in Wisconsin. In some circumstances, a person as young as 14 can be “waived” into adult court and treated as an adult for criminal law purposes.
    • Supporting yourself financially, as parents/legal guardians are no longer required to do so
    • Assuming control and responsibility for your own medical and financial decisions and medical and academic records. At age 18, all parental and guardianship rights are terminated; parents or guardians can only make medical or financial decisions for you with your explicit consent or court approval.

    Over the coming weeks, many young people are likely to find themselves in situations where they will need to sign contracts, such as rental agreements, for the first time.

    Attorneys advise young adults to remember some general rules to follow when asked to sign a contract:

    • Don’t sign anything until you are sure you understand the agreement
    • Read the entire contract before signing it
    • Ask questions about anything in the contract you don’t understand
    • Cross out parts of the contract that conflict with your agreement
    • Write in parts of your agreement that are not in the contract
    • Don’t sign a contract if it contains any blank spaces--either fill them in or cross them out if they do not apply
    • Be concerned if someone asks you to sign a contract without reading it
    • Don’t be intimidated
    • Don’t be taken in by friendly folks
    • Don’t assume that a printed form contract must be okay
    • Never sign anything unless you understand why you are being asked to sign and what you are agreeing to do
    • Be sure that you get a complete, accurate, signed copy of the contract

    Lawyers also have specific reminders for 18-year-olds who are signing their first lease:

    A landlord/property owner has the right to:

    • set the amount of rent
    • set rules for occupancy, except that a landlord in Wisconsin cannot discriminate based on a tenant’s sex, race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religion, national origin, marital status, family status, lawful source of income, age, or ancestry
    • collect for damages to the property and sell the rental unit (if there is a written lease, it continues to its expiration date)

    A tenant has the right to:

    • use the rental unit in accordance with the rules​
    • occupy the rental unit without unjust interference or discrimination by the landlord
    • expect the property to be safe and kept in reasonably good repair

    ​A tenant should also do the following before renting a property:

    • See the specific unit he/she intends to rent – not a “model” unit
    • Note its condition, report any need for painting/cleaning/repairs
    • Read the lease and any related notices or disclosures
    • For a complete list of necessary disclosures, visit

    For more helpful advice for 18-year-olds, please visit and download our guide, What You Should Know about Wisconsin Law: Your Legal Rights & Responsibilities.

    * People under legal adult guardianship due to disability will need to check with their guardian, attorney, and/or the Court about their rights.​

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