Legal Age

Legal age is defined as the age at which a person is legally allowed to participate in adult activities, and becomes responsible for his affairs. Examples of legal age include the legal age of consent, the legal age for sex, and legal drinking age. There is also the legal working age, which is the minimum age someone must be to work, and the voting age, which is the minimum age someone must be in order to vote. To explore this concept, consider the following legal age definition.

Definition of Legal Age


  1. The age at which a person comes into full adult rights and responsibilities.
  2. The age at which a person is legally permitted to engage in a specific activity.


1658    Middle English

Legal Age for Sex

The legal age of consent is the minimum age at which a person is considered legally able to consent to sexual activities. Both partners must be of the legal age of consent. Some jurisdictions allow for exceptions on the legal age of consent when a minor is married to his/her partner, or when a minor and his/her partner are a certain number of years apart. Typically, those who are under the age of consent are not legally permitted to give consent to engaging in sexual relations.

Those who engage in sexual relations with people below the legal age for sex can be brought up on criminal charges like those associated with rape or sexual assault. Non-violent sexual activities involving people under the legal age for sex can be punished with a wide variety of charges, from a misdemeanor charge, to a felony, depending on the nature of the incident. Such charges, of engaging in sexual activity with a minor under the legal age of consent, may result in the other person being required to register as a sex offender.

Someone’s job can influence the age of consent as well. Consider the following example:

Mr. Anderson is Jillian’s 22-year-old teacher. Jillian is 17 years old, and they both live in the state of Indiana, where the age of consent is 16. The two enter into a sexual relationship with each other, believing it is legal to do so. However, they are mistaken. While the age of consent is 16, and while Jillian is over the age of 16, their relationship is still illegal because it is illegal for someone over the age of 18 to have sex with someone under the age of 18, if the older party is an authoritative figure, like a teacher or military recruiter.

Historically, same-sex relationships were deemed illegal no matter the age of the participants. These laws were created to govern relationships that involved a man and a woman only. However, same-sex relationships are now subject to the same laws that govern the age of consent for heterosexual couples.

Today’s laws vary, and so too may the legal age for sex of the parties involved, depending on the jurisdiction. For example, the legal age in each state is different. The most common age is 16 years old, however some states’ age of consent is 17 or 18.

Legal Drinking Age

The legal drinking age is the minimum age a person must reach before he can drink or buy alcohol. Most laws with regard to the legal drinking age refer to the drinking of alcohol in public places. Some states do not allow those under the legal drinking age to be present in bars or liquor stores, establishments that only serve or sell alcohol. Even though restaurants typically serve alcohol, minors are still permitted to be on the premises because restaurants also sell food, not just alcohol.

Some religions involve alcohol in their rituals and, as such, federal law provides for religious exemptions in these cases. For instance, in the Christian religion, some states permit minors to imbibe a sip of wine to celebrate such religious occasions as the Eucharist, and Holy Communion. This wine is called “sacramental wine,” and it symbolizes Jesus’ blood.

In drinking the sacramental wine, the congregation agrees to unite as one people under Jesus. This is the congregation’s way of showing they agree to live their lives in accordance with the expectations of their faith. As such, it is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting all people free exercise of religion.

Non-alcoholic beer is also legal for those under the age of 21 years old in many states, like Texas and Maryland. Washington and Wisconsin permit those under the legal drinking age to consume alcohol while in the presence of their parents.

As of January 2010, 15 states have banned underage consumption in all forms, while 18 states allow for family member or location exemptions. Some states have laws on the books that make it a crime to provide alcohol to people under the age of 21. It is also a crime for those under the age of 21 to be in possession of alcohol in these states. The punishment in these situations is a misdemeanor with a possible fine of up to $5,000, and/or a maximum of one year in jail.

Legal Voting Age

The legal voting age is the minimum age that a person must to vote in a public election. Typically, the legal voting age is 18 years. However, in many states, people are allowed to vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 on or before the day of the election. When the right to vote was first established, the legal voting age was typically 21 years old or higher. This age was reduced to 18 years in the 1970s.

Legal Working Age

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) determines the legal working age that minors must achieve in order to join the workforce. The FLSA also sets the number of hours a person can work, the wage that he can earn, and the safety requirements that must be afforded to persons under the legal working age. The rules vary, depending on the age of the minor, and the job the minor will be doing. However, it is typically accepted that the legal working age is 14 years. Those under the age of 16 are limited in the number of hours they can work.

The FLSA also prevents minors from working in jobs that would be considered dangerous by the Secretary of Labor. Such jobs include driving a company car, or operating certain kinds of equipment – like that which is required for agricultural work. The FLSA also permits exceptions to the general rules, such as if a minor is employed by his parent. If state law and the rules set by the FLSA come into conflict, the law that provides the most protection for the minor will prevail.

Legal Age Example Involving Congressional Power

An example of legal age being disputed in a court case took place in 1984 in South Dakota. In this case, a car containing four friends, each of them 19 years old, crossed the state line into South Dakota. Their purpose for doing so was because they wanted to buy beer, despite being underage, and they would legally be allowed to do so in South Dakota. At that time, South Dakota allowed persons 19 years old and up to purchase beer that contained up to 3.2 percent alcohol.

This was the same point in time that lawmakers in Washington, D.C. were drafting the National Minimum Drinking Age Amendment. Under this amendment, states that did not raise their legal drinking age to 21 years old would receive five percent less funding toward maintaining their highways. South Dakota challenged this amendment and sued for a declaratory judgment in Federal District Court, arguing that Congress was overstepping its power and violating the 21st Amendment. The 21st Amendment give states the exclusive right to regulate alcohol on their terms.

The District Court sided with Congress, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower Court’s decision. The case was then brought before the Supreme Court, which disagreed with South Dakota as well. The Supreme Court stated that Congress could, in fact, “indirectly” influence the state to proceed in a certain way by limiting its spending power. However, Congress must meet the following requirements in order to do so:

  • The condition must be “reasonably related” to the purpose of the funding.
  • The condition must be in pursuit of the “general welfare” related to the national program or interest.
  • The condition must not force states to do something that would otherwise be unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court held that the amendment merely acted as “relatively mild encouragement” to states to enact higher minimum legal drinking ages. The Court found the law to be constitutional, stating that:

“[W]e find this legislative effort within constitutional bounds even if Congress may not regulate drinking ages directly.”

And that the Constitution gives Congress power to:

“… lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.

Incident to this power, Congress may attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds, and has repeatedly employed the power … by conditioning receipt of federal moneys upon compliance by the recipient with federal statutory and administrative directives.”

Further, the Court held that, by different states creating different legal drinking ages, they were effectively creating “an incentive to drink and drive.” The Court therefore found the amendment to be consistent with the overall goal of advocating for the health of the general public. Congress was therefore able to effectively create a unified minimum drinking age for the country, despite not being afforded this power.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Declaratory Judgment – A judgment made by a court determining certain rights of a party without ordering any action to be taken, or ordering any damages.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Minor – A person under the age of what is considered the age at which he is to be held legally responsible for his actions.
  • Misdemeanor –A minor wrongdoing in the eyes of the law.
  • Sex Offender – A person convicted of a crime involving sex, including rape, molestation, and production or distribution of child pornography.