Who Owns the Earnings of Child Actors?

Jackie Coogan was born in 1914, the son of a vaudeville actor and his wife. His natural ability to mimic adults brought him the attention of famed silent-movie star Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin featured seven-year-old Jackie in some of his films and made Jackie a star in the film “The Kid.” “The Kid” catapulted Jackie into a box-office gold mine for the movie makers and Jackie’s parents. During his childhood, he earned over $3 million dollars (approximately $50 million in today’s dollars). Sadly, virtually all of Jackie’s earnings were spent by his mother and stepfather. They bought, among other things, fur coats, diamonds and other jewelry, expensive cars and homes, and lived an extravagant life style. According to Jackie’s mom, Rita Bernstein, "No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything. Every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 [now 18] belongs to his parents. Jackie will not get a cent of his earnings." According to the law in the 1920s, Rita was right. All earnings of child laborers belonged solely to their parents. In 1938, Jackie sued his parents and was only awarded $126,000 of the remaining $260,000 of his life’s earnings.

This being California and the entertainment capital of the world, Jackie’s lawsuit got the attention of the California state legislature. In 1939, the legislature enacted legislation known as the Coogan’s Law or the Coogan’s Act requiring employers set aside 15 percent of a child actor’s earnings in a trust fund for the child. The one “fly-in-the-ointment” is that it usually only protects child actors of long-term contracts, such as acting roles on TV series. It rarely protects children hired for one-time acting parts, such as commercials or guest performers on TV programs. The law is also voluntary; either the parents of the performing child or his/her employer may request a judge approve a proposed employment contract. It is not mandatory; however, the employer may wish to have the contract approved to ensure performance by the minor child. Normally, minors cannot be held to the performance of contracts unless the contracts are for the child’s necessities such as food, housing or medical care.

Recently, the state of Florida enacted legislation providing when an entertainment performance contract is submitted for court approval, "…all earnings, royalties, or other compensation earned or received by the minor pursuant to said approved contract shall become the property of the minor." California still relies on the old British common law practice (codified into law as Family Code Section 7500) that the earnings of a minor child belong to the child’s parents.

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