A producer’s first time working with child actors can be a stressful experience. As if getting a production off the ground wasn't already challenging enough, working with kids adds the complications of stage parents, studio teachers, and outdated child labor regulations to your already staggering workload.
But with the right information, the process doesn’t have to be nearly as complicated (or intimidating) as it seems. In this article, we tackle one of the most common sources of a producer's pain: the Coogan Law.
Officially known as the California Child Actor’s Bill, the Coogan Law exists for the same purpose as all of the other child actor protection laws that you’re going to encounter over the course of your production: to prevent the exploitation and abuse of working minors within the bounds of their employment on your set.
However, the Coogan Law has nothing to do with traditional labor questions of how long children can work or how much do kid actors get paid. Instead, it fills in a crucial gap among other child actor laws by requiring that a percentage of every child actor’s earnings be shielded in a trust (Coogan Account) that they’ll gain access to once they reach adulthood.
The Jackie Coogan Law ensures the financial well-being of child actors by mandating that their employer set aside 15% of the child actor’s gross earnings in a Coogan Trust Account, where it can be monitored – but not withdrawn – by a legal guardian until the child reaches legal maturity.
In other words, the Coogan Law prevents parents from burning through all their child actor’s hard-earned cash.
However, if the child is a background actor or extra, this 15% requirement is waived. As an example, say your child actor is an extra making around like $100/day, the requirement to deposit 15% of that 100 is no longer necessary. This addition to the law was likely put in place to reduce an unnecessary amount of paperwork for such a small amount of money.
The Coogan Law is short for the Jackie Coogan Law, and it’s named in honor of John Leslie Coogan, actor and comedian extraordinaire whose talent made him one of the first child stars in film history.
Born in 1914, Jackie Coogan was discovered at a vaudeville show when he was only five years old by none other than Charlie Chaplin. Two short years later, Chaplin cast Jackie in his classic silent-era feature film, The Kid, an act that would make Jackie a household name virtually overnight. In fact, Jackie Coogan’s fame grew so intensely that his image was used to merchandise products, and by the mid-’20s, Jackie had established the archetypical dream every child actor would follow.
Jackie’s mother and step-father, unfortunately, had other plans. In 1938, Jackie discovered that the pair had spent the entirety of his estimated $3 to $4 million in child actor earnings without his knowledge. He was forced to sue, recovered only a small portion of the overall sum, and fell into financial hardship.
The focus that Jackie’s legal battle brought to the vulnerability of child actors ultimately resulted in the 1939 enactment of the Jackie Coogan Law.
Having read the above, you may be wondering exactly what a producer’s role is in all this.
It’s easy to assume that adherence to Coogan Law is entirely up to a child actor’s parents and, to be honest, that assumption isn’t totally wrong. After all, a producer doesn’t have to ask, “Can a Coogan Account be closed?” or “Who is the trustee on a Coogan Account?”
A producer doesn’t have to do the legwork to figure out whether a Wells Fargo Coogan Account, Chase Coogan Account, or ACFU Coogan Account is going to drain their child’s earnings over time with exorbitant fees.
No, a producer’s role in Coogan Law is considerably less complicated than that of a stage parent, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less critical in making sure that the law works as intended.
The bottom line is that 15% of any child actor’s gross earnings must be deposited into their Coogan Bank Account within 15 days of employment, and you, as a producer, are responsible for making sure that happens.
With entertainment payroll companies like Wrapbook, you can easily divide up your payments into a Coogan account by identifying your minors when setting up your project.
Before you begin shooting, be sure to perform the following as far in advance as possible.
The first step in the process is to get your child actor’s Coogan Bank Account information from their parent or legal guardian. This should consist of the child’s legal name, a Coogan Account number, and a routing number. If your child actor is already a set veteran, getting this information will be no problem. Their parent or legal guardian will likely send it to your team before you have a chance to ask.
However, if the child (or the parent) is still new to the process, you may have to provide some guidance. In that case, communicate your timeline, point them to information, and- as painful as I know this can be- BE PATIENT.
Remember, in this regard, their job is far more stressful than yours. As with all actors, be sure to check if they’re in SAG as well.
As soon as they’ve passed you the account details, the law requires that you provide the parents with a receipt agreeing that you did, in fact, receive them. This requirement is designed to prevent the more nefarious producers among us from playing dumb and “misplacing” the funds for their child actor’s Coogan Account, but the provision is also a concrete gesture to simply close the first step in the process. Now, the responsibility is on the producer’s shoulders.
Once you have the child actor’s Coogan Account information, you’re going to use it to deposit the required 15% of their gross earnings. If your production team is handling payroll directly, then you’ll have to make any and all deposits into the Coogan Account yourself. Depending on the child actor’s contract, you may be able to accomplish this with a single direct deposit of funds.
However, you will be legally obligated to update the amount with further deposits if the child actor’s earnings increase for any reason over the course of production. For that reason, you may prefer to make the deposits on a paycheck to paycheck basis, in step with your regular payroll. Either way, you’ll need to communicate directly with the bank to let them know these payments are being made in accordance with the Coogan Law.
However, if your production is working with a payroll company, the majority of the work will fall on their shoulders, dramatically simplifying your relationship to the child actor’s Coogan Account and to the Coogan Law in general.
All you’ll need to do is communicate with your designated payroll company representative. Entertainment payroll companies deal with Coogan Accounts all the time. It’s not at all unusual, and they will generally have a standard procedure already in place.
Payroll companies, like Wrapbook, make it easy for you or the family to input minor status when onboarding. You'll be have a clear visual of all actors under the age of 18 when you use the software to digitally onboard them onto your production. As mentioned earlier, you can easily divide up payments into a Coogan account once you've identified your minors during onboarding. when setting up your project.
Obviously, the most basic step will be to provide your payroll company with your child actor’s Coogan Account information, but there may be additional steps or paperwork to take care of that vary from company to company. For instance, you may need to have your child actor’s parents or legal guardian sign a separate Coogan Account Direct Deposit Agreement for your payroll company’s records.
If you’re working with SAG talent, using an approved SAG payroll company is mandatory.
Once 15% of the child actor’s gross earnings are out of your hands and in the Coogan Account, the monitoring and management of those funds exit your purview entirely. Your job is done. It’s that simple.
In the modern production ecosystem, a Coogan Account is a fundamental requirement for any child actor seeking employment. Without proof of his or her parents having opened a Coogan Bank Account in their name, a child actor will not be able to secure a basic work permit.
Subsequently, you, as a producer, will be unable to employ them. A Coogan Account or Coogan Bank Account is actually a kind of Trust (thus, why it’s frequently also referred to as a Coogan Blocked Trust Account or a Coogan Trust Account). In basic financial terms, a trust is a three-party arrangement in which a “trustor” agrees to give the “trustee” the ability to hold and control assets or property for the “beneficiary”. Once (or if) the said beneficiary meets certain agreed-upon requirements, the assets or property should pass directly into their possession from the trustee.
In the specific case of a Coogan Account, a parent or legal guardian (the trustor) agrees to give a bank or other financial institution (the trustee) the right to hold 15% of the gross earnings made by their child actor (the beneficiary) until the child actor reaches the age of majority (generally, eighteen years old, but it does vary from state to state).
Because the opening of a Coogan Account is a prerequisite for adherence to other child actor laws (i.e. a child’s ability to obtain a work permit), the Coogan Law effectively guarantees that all child actors are shielded from a total mismanagement of their earnings.
It’s important to note that not all states require a child actor to maintain an open Coogan Account. California, New York, Louisiana, and New Mexico are the only states that adhere to regulations directly analogous to the Coogan Law, and there are significant idiosyncrasies in the specific rules by which a Coogan Account operates even among those four.
As a producer, you should be aware of at least the basics of Coogan Account operation in any region in which you’re active, as well as overtime laws.
As productions continue moving out and away from Los Angeles, the waters surrounding child actor laws grow increasingly murky. Regardless of where your production takes you, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the appropriate state’s Labor Department to clear up any lingering questions or concerns before bringing a child actor onto your set.
In California, the birthplace of Coogan Law, a Coogan Account is an absolute requirement for a child actor’s employment. Additionally, parents or legal guardians are required to open their child’s Coogan Account with a California bank.
In Louisiana, by contrast, a Coogan Account is required, but it can be opened with any bank in any state.
In New York, parents or legal guardians are, instead, required to open what is known as an UTMA or UGMA Compliant Trust Account. However, these trusts don’t differ from a Coogan Account in their regulations around withdrawal and can be opened at any bank in any state, provided they meet the UTMA or UGMA requirements.
Meanwhile, in New Mexico, a Coogan Account is only required if a child actor is earning more than $1000 per employment contract.
As producers, it is our duty to honor the legacy of the Jackie Coogan law and do our small part in making sure children on screens and stages everywhere continue to be protected.
While Jackie Coogan eventually found success as an adult actor, notably playing “Uncle Fester” on The Addams Family, not all child actors have been so fortunate.
The legacy of Jackie Coogan, actor and comedian, is felt most prominently not in his performances, but in the attention he called to his own exploitation, in his daring to challenge his own parent in a court of law. For more on these specific laws, be sure to take a look at our Producer's Guide to Child Actor Laws.
Have any lingering questions about the Coogan law? Reach out to us to get the right info from a payroll expert.
At Wrapbook, we're all about providing the very best free resources to producers and their crews. However, this post is not a substitute for professional legal advice. Answers do not create a company-client relationship, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice. Seek the advice of a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction before taking any action that may affect your decisions or rights.
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