By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“Unfortunately, I didn’t write it down,” says Debbie. “We had every intention of writing it down, but things got bad, and then things got worse, and things snowballed.”
Jena accedes that she went along with the loans. Sort of. “Someone comes up to you and says, ‘Your uncles need help, to get a house. Do you want to help them out?’ What are you going to say? ‘No, I don’t want to help out my uncles, who buy me an ice cream cone.‘ You don’t really think about, oh, now the money‘s going to be gone . . . What [kid] is thinking about interest and when they’re going to be paid back?”
In late 1997, Jena‘s accountant told Debbie he needed $150,000 for taxes; Debbie said she’d put aside only $60,000. The accountant asked where the money was, and whether Debbie could get it back.
“I told him I invested it because I didn‘t want to blow it,” says Debbie, apparently unappreciative of the differences among an investment, a loan and a gift. “I’m the type of person, I don‘t want the money in the bank account. I felt safer knowing that it was actually invested in something. And honestly, that much money scared me.”
Money troubles and kids have a long tradition in Hollywood: Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple were among the youngest actors who made the biggest bundles for the studios and, one would assume, for themselves. Yet their earnings supported their families, and their parents were profligate with the funds. In keeping with California law at the time, the earnings of a child actor rightfully belonged to the parents; if they chose to piss it away, that was their business. In 1938, when Coogan (the eponymous star of the Charlie Chaplin classic The Kid, and later known for his role as Uncle Fester on TV’s The Addams Family) sued his mother to recoup what he‘d made at Metro Pictures, he wound up with $126,000, barely 3 percent of his lifetime earnings. When Shirley Temple married, she was given what was left of her $40 million fortune: $40,000 and the deed to her dollhouse. More recently, Macaulay Culkin received permission from a judge to dip into his trust fund in order to bail out his parents, who’d spent millions of dollars of his earnings -- this on top of the percentage they‘d earned as his co-managers.
“There oughta be a law . . .,” one thinks, and there is: After the Coogan debacle, the 1939 Child Actor’s Bill, commonly known as the Jackie Coogan Law, forced studios to deposit up to 50 percent of a child‘s wages (usually interpreted as 30 percent) in “set-aside” trusts that could not be touched and became the child’s upon reaching 18. The remainder was the property and responsibility of the parents, the rationale being that minors were non compos mentis when it came to money matters, while parents would always and only have the best interests of the child at heart. After all, weren‘t they slaving selflessly, primping and prepping and coaching and giving up their own careers in order to help the child achieve his or her ambitions?
“There’s a scene in the movie Gypsy,” says Paul Petersen, “where Roz Russell is complaining that she feels very much cut out of her daughter‘s life all of a sudden, and she says to her, ’Why do you think I sat up all those nights doing the costumes and teaching you your lines and taking you to auditions?‘ And Natalie Wood says, ’I thought you were doing it for me.‘ And for a working kid, sooner or later, that scene is played out in real life.”
While Petersen fully supported the Coogan Law, he knew it needed updating. “You literally had families paying out of pocket in order for their child to work,” says Petersen, who was influential in pushing through a Revised Coogan Law, which was sponsored by Senator John Burton and Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (who as a teenager played Zelda Gilroy on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). As of January 1, 2000, only 15 percent of a child’s earnings must be deposited in a trust. More important, the remainder of the money is now the property of the child; parents can no longer use it to support themselves and their families. If they do, and if the child objects, he may, upon turning 18, sue the parents. The only way to preempt financial ruin before that time is for a child to gain control of his own money. In order to do this, he must become emancipated. a
“Ever since I heard about it, when I was 12, I wanted to do it,” says Jena. “From the moment we moved to New York, actually.”
Becoming emancipated is deceptively difficult: The minor must petition the court and prove, under penalty of perjury, that he has already been operating effectively as an adult, that he earns and manages his own finances, that he is sober and responsible, and that he has previously been living without parental supervision. These requirements are softened should the parent agree to the emancipation.
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