Child Actors and Coogan’s Bill


Born into acting, by the age of five Jackie Coogan, Jr. was a veteran stage performer when Charlie Chaplin first spotted him in 1919. Immediately cast in Chaplin’s A Day’s Pleasure, the hard-working Coogan went on to star in The Kid (1919), Daddy (1923), Long Live the King (1923), Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931). As a child, he was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, but at the age of 21, when he tried to get access to the approximately $4 million (about $67 million today) he had earned up to that point, he learned that his mother and stepfather had spent most of it. He was only able to garner $126,000 of the remaining $250,000 or so they hadn’t spent after suing the two.

His mother, Lillian Coogan, argued during the case that Jackie had been having fun anyway while acting and that, “No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything.”  His stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, added, “Every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents. Jackie will not get a cent of his earnings.” One notes even Bernstein used the word “his,” as in Jackie’s, in describing the money.

The resulting inequity outraged the public and led to passage of the Child Actors Bill (aka the Coogan Act or Coogan Law).

When established in 1938, the Coogan Law provided that a portion of the minor performer’s earnings should be set aside in a trust account for the minor’s use when he or she reached majority. This was designed to address one of the major problems Jackie had in recovering his lost money from his mother; as a community property state, under California law, all of Coogan’s earnings as a child legally belonged to the family – meaning his mother was entitled to spend it (or at least some of it).

Even with provisions to set-aside earnings, greedy parents found many loopholes over the intervening years. As a result, amendments were passed in 1999 and 2003 to strengthen the law. Under today’s version, employers are required to set aside 15% of a minor’s earnings into a trust account, or, if the parent fails to set up the trust account, to deposit it with the Actors Fund of America (AFA). Also under current law, all of the minor’s earnings belong to the minor – no longer is it community property, shared with the parents.

Today, other states including New Mexico, New York and Louisiana have laws that require, in certain circumstances, the opening of special trust accounts to hold the earnings of child performers.

Note, however, that California recently amended Coogan’s law again, this time to provide an exception to the 15% withholding and trust account requirements for those minors who “contract to provide services as an extra, background performer, or in another similar capacity.” I’m sure no one will find a way to exploit the “other similar capacity” loophole…

In any event, today when a child performer is employed in a relatively de minimis role, employers are exempt from the withholding requirements. The bill’s stated purpose is to eliminate “unnecessary and inefficient” procedures for those young actors who only work once or twice a year in a very small role, as well as to give these kids back their “summer fun money.” Notably, according to the legislative analysis, by 2013 the AFA had over 38,000 unclaimed individual deposits, over 80% of which were for less than $99.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Jackie Coogan went on to lead an interesting life. He married actress and World War II pin-up girl Betty Grable in 1938 (they divorced three years later). He served in the army during that war, including flying British soldiers 100 miles behind Japanese lines in December of 1943 as a member of the 1st Air Commando Group, and returned to Hollywood where he was gainfully employed (even if not in critically acclaimed movies) for the next four decades.
  • Although during the 1950s, he was stuck with B movies like Outlaw Women and Escape from Terror, he became a television mainstay during the 1960s, guest starring on staples like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show, The Red Skelton Hour and Perry Mason before landing the role of Uncle Fester in The Addams Family in 1964. Jackie continued to guest-star in dozens of series in the late 60s and early 70s, including The Wild Wild West, I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch, The New Scooby Doo Movies, Love American Style, Hawaii Five-O (the first one), and Adam-12, as well as land roles in a few movies including Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype and Human Experiments.
  • Jackie wasn’t the only child performer to be forced to the courts to gain control of his money. In the mid 1990s, Macaulay Culkinof Home Alone fame had to sue both of his parents in order to gain access to the fortune he earned. A few years before, child actor Gary Coleman, the star of the television series Different Strokes, won over one million dollars in a court suit against his parents for blowing nearly $4 million of his earnings as a child. More recently, in 2000, country singer Lee Ann Rimes, at the age of 17 sued her father Wilbur C. Rimes and his co-manager Lyle Walker, for $7 million. Her allegations included that the two had withdrawn 30% of her income by doubling management fees, as well as other nefarious practices. The lawsuit was eventually settled and the Rimes’ reconciled.
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