Trapped in Limbo: Outdated Guardianship Laws in North Carolina Fail the Vulnerable

Trapped in Limbo Outdated Guardianship Laws in North Carolina Fail the Vulnerable

Advocates in North Carolina are raising concerns over the stagnant state of guardianship laws, which have remained unchanged for decades. According to these advocates, the existing laws fail to keep up with the evolving landscape of the field, depriving individuals of necessary information and expanded rights when their lives are placed under the control of another person, agency, or business.

Landmark Adult Guardianship Reforms Gain Momentum in North Carolina Legislature

In a groundbreaking development, a bill proposing sweeping reforms to various aspects of adult guardianship has achieved unanimous approval in the state Senate on April 20. The bill now advances to a House committee as it seeks to introduce significant changes to a long-stagnant area of law. If passed, these reforms would mark the first substantive updates in decades, with a key focus on enhancing the rights of individuals placed under guardianship. The proposed reforms aim to ensure full transparency and informed decision-making throughout the process while bolstering oversight by county clerks’ offices. Currently, legal guardianship in North Carolina grants extensive control over the daily lives and financial affairs of individuals deemed lacking the capacity to make crucial welfare and financial decisions.

According to a recent presentation to legislators in March, the fiscal year 2021-22 saw a total of 5,786 individuals placed under guardianship in North Carolina. These numbers have sparked a much-needed push for reform in the existing laws governing the practice. This revamp is partly attributed to the tireless efforts of Rethinking Guardianship, a statewide initiative funded by the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities. The campaign, which has been in motion since 2015, has been diligently carried out by UNC Cares at the School of Social Work located at UNC Chapel Hill. The aim of this collective endeavor is to bring about a comprehensive and positive change to the guardianship system in the state.

Guardianship Laws Limit Autonomy of Women by Transferring Decision-Making Authority

Guardianship laws in North Carolina, like many other jurisdictions, are designed to protect individuals who are incapable of making decisions for themselves due to mental or physical incapacity. These laws are gender-neutral, meaning they do not discriminate between men and women. Instead, they focus on assessing an individual’s capacity and determining whether appointing a guardian is necessary. While guardianship aims to safeguard vulnerable individuals, it can potentially impact women by transferring decision-making authority to the guardian, limiting their autonomy. There is also a risk of abuse or exploitation if the appointed guardian acts against the best interests of the incapacitated person. Gender biases may exist within the legal system, emphasizing the importance of fair and unbiased decision-making. It’s crucial to explore less restrictive alternatives, such as supported decision-making or power of attorney, before resorting to guardianship.

North Carolina’s Guardian ad Litem Program

In a move to protect the rights and welfare of abused and neglected children, North Carolina has implemented an initiative called the Guardian ad Litem program. With a force of over 5,000 passionate child advocate volunteers, this program stands as a beacon of hope for these vulnerable youngsters, empowering them by providing dedicated representation in court.

The Office of Guardian ad Litem Services was established in 1983 by the North Carolina General Assembly, housed within the influential North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. When a distressing petition alleging abuse or neglect of a juvenile reaches the district court, a judge promptly assigns a two-pronged legal team: a volunteer Guardian ad Litem (GAL) advocate and an attorney advocate. Together, these allies ensure that the child’s best interests are staunchly defended throughout trial and appellate proceedings, granting the child full party status.

Central to the success of the Guardian ad Litem program is the comprehensive training, supervision, and support provided to all GAL advocates by the program’s dedicated staff. These professionals are present in every county across the state, ensuring that no child in North Carolina slips through the cracks. Through this collaborative model, the program guarantees that all children facing allegations of abuse or neglect, as determined by the Department of Social Services, receive the unwavering legal advocacy they desperately need.

The Guardian ad Litem program operates as a lifeline for these vulnerable children, bridging the gap between their voices and the justice system. By securing full party status, these youngsters are given the opportunity to be heard, allowing their stories and needs to be placed front and center during legal proceedings.

Britney Spears’ Testimony Sheds Light on North Carolina’s Guardianship System

In a heartbreaking plea for freedom in the year 2021, pop star Britney Spears testified in court, aiming to put an end to the 13-year-long conservatorship that has dominated her life. This high-profile case has brought attention to the concept of conservatorship, a legal arrangement with similarities in North Carolina’s guardianship system. A conservatorship, as defined by the California courts, involves a judge appointing a responsible person or organization to care for an adult who is unable to care for themselves or manage their own finances. In North Carolina, the closest equivalent is a guardianship, according to the state’s judicial branch.

However, it’s important to note that a guardianship differs from a power of attorney. Power of attorney is a voluntary arrangement, requiring the person granting it to be competent at the time. In contrast, incompetency is a determining factor for placing someone under guardianship.

Under a guardianship, the designated guardian assumes many rights of the ward, such as making decisions regarding living arrangements, medical treatment, financial management, and entering into contracts. The North Carolina courts emphasize that while the ward should participate as much as possible in decisions impacting their life, the guardian is entrusted with protecting their rights.

Factors that may lead to an incompetency hearing include mental illness, intellectual or developmental disability, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, autism, inebriety, senility, disease, injury, or similar conditions. It is crucial to understand that demonstrating poor judgment or wastefulness alone does not necessarily indicate incompetency. North Carolina courts emphasize that guardianships should be a last resort, considered only when less intrusive alternatives prove ineffective.

The case of Britney Spears ignited a broader conversation about the delicate balance between protecting individuals who may be unable to care for themselves and respecting their autonomy. While the courts believed that the conservatorship was in Spears’ best interest, her heartfelt testimony has raised questions about the system’s impact on her life.

The legal battle of Spears’ case serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of critically examining guardianship and conservatorship arrangements to ensure they truly serve the well-being and autonomy of those involved.


Akansha Deshmukh is an independent investigative journalist covering women centric issues, gender-based violence, and domestic abuse, as well as serious crimes, political corruption, cyberspace and terrorism. 



There are 2 comments

Add yours
  1. Denise Fitzpatrick

    Can someone help me to get this knowledge in regards to “SDM”?

    I am a Supporter for a very smart individual who has a Guardian but wants BADLY to be his own man. He actually makes good decisions. He wants to get rid of the Guardian as he wants Supportive Decision Making (“SDM”) We have the forms to start “SDM” but we do not know what to do with the forms. Do we just give them to the Guardian and the “SDM” starts or do we need to motion into the court for removal of the Guardianship or what? Can you help us to gain the answers to these questions?



    Denise Fitzpatrick

  2. Denise Fitzpatrick

    Please open this link to sign a petition to eradicate Guardianship. You will also be able to hear a podcast on the ” Julian Coatley Story. This story us a devastating case of wrongful and unlawful Guardianship, which is a restricted means of care.

Post a new comment