Changes to NC Guardianship Law


In 2021, The New York Times released the headline-seizing documentary film Framing Britney Spears. The film explored the so-called “#FreeBritney Movement”—a term used to describe a loosely organized effort by Spears’ dedicated and vocal fanbase to end a California conservatorship that empowered Spears’s father, as conservator, to exercise significant control over her personal and financial affairs. A similar grassroots movement arose among the fans of former Nickelodeon star Amanda Bynes and culminated in termination of a nearly decade-long California conservatorship that likewise constrained keys aspects of her individual decision-making.

California is, however, hardly alone among jurisdictions that prescribe procedures and mechanisms for wresting control from individuals deemed incapable of managing aspects of their lives. In North Carolina, such arrangements are called guardianships, rather than conservatorships. Effective January 1, 2024, several key legislative changes altered aspects of the statutory regime governing North Carolina guardianships. Many of these changes appear to be motivated by a desire to ensure that respondents in guardianship proceedings (i.e., those who may ultimately be adjudicated as incompetent) are better apprised of their rights and subject to fewer limitations on their individual liberty.

For example, the guardianship statutes now make clear that a person will not be adjudicated as an incompetent and subjected to a guardianship “if, by means of a less restrictive alternative, he or she is able to sufficiently (i) manage his or her affairs and (ii) communicate important decisions concerning his or her person, family, and property.” This idea was implicit in the law of guardianship prior to the recently enacted legislative changes but is now made explicit. The statute also includes an express definition of the term “less restrictive alternative”:

An arrangement enabling a respondent to manage his or her affairs or to make or communicate important decisions concerning his or her person, property, and family that restricts fewer rights of the respondent than would the adjudication of incompetency and appointment of a guardian. The term includes supported decision making, appropriate and available technological assistance, appointment of a representative payee, and appointment of an agent by the respondent, including appointment under a power of attorney for health care or power of attorney for finances.

In other words, and as but one example of a potential “less restrictive alternative,” if a person executed a durable power of attorney prior to experiencing any issues impacting his or her competency, the existence of that durable power of attorney might be viewed as obviating the need for an adjudication of incompetency and the appointment of a guardian of the estate or general guardian for the principal under the power of attorney, even if the person might otherwise meet the criteria to qualify as an incompetent adult.

The new law also requires the petition in any guardianship proceeding to affirmatively include a “statement identifying what less restrictive alternatives have been considered prior to seeking adjudication and why those less restrictive alternatives are insufficient to meet the needs of the respondent.”

Another significant update concerns the respondent’s right to receive a mandatory, conspicuous notice that advises the respondent, without limitation, of the following:

– The right to counsel of choice;

– The right to be represented by a court-appointed guardian ad litem;

– The right to receive notice of any hearings and copies of documents filed in the proceeding;

– The right to gather and present evidence;

– The right to a hearing before being adjudicated as incompetent;

– The right to have a jury determine the issue of competency;

– The right to ask for a non-public hearing;

– The right to communicate his or her wishes regarding the exercise of any of his or her rights and the selection of any potential guardians; and

– The right to appeal.

A respondent is also now entitled to be notified about the rights he or she will have in the event that a court ultimately adjudicates the respondent as an incompetent ward, including, without limitation, the following:

– The right to a qualified and responsible guardian;

– The right to request that the administration of the guardianship be transferred to a different county of venue;

– The right to request that he or she be restored to competency;

– The right to request a review or modification of the guardianship; and

– The right to vote.

A guardian ad litem appointed to represent the respondent’s best interests must explain these rights to the respondent if the respondent requests such explanation during the guardian ad litem’s personal visit with the respondent. In any proceedings following an adjudication of incompetency in which a guardian ad litem is appointed for the incompetent ward, the guardian ad litem is likewise under a continuing, mandatory, affirmative duty to explain these rights. Finally, the written notice advising the respondent of these rights mut be served on the ward alongside the petition and notice of hearing.

In keeping with the general tenor of many of these updates, the law also now expressly states that, in the case of adults, “guardianship should always be a last resort and should only be imposed after less restrictive alternatives have been considered and found to be insufficient to meet the adult’s needs.”

If you need legal assistance in instituting a North Carolina guardianship proceeding as a petitioner or defending against a proceeding or seeking modification of an existing guardianship as a respondent, ward, or other interested person, attorneys at Blanco Tackabery may be able to help you navigate the complexities of this unique legal area. Similarly, if you have been appointed as the guardian for an incompetent ward and need advice concerning administration of a guardianship and compliance with your fiduciary obligations, please reach out to us today.


Chad Archer brings extensive expertise in state and federal litigation and was recently named to Business North Carolina’s Legal Elite Honorees 2024 as well as the 2024 edition of The Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch® in America. In his civil litigation practice, he advises clients on a wide range of issues, including trusts and estates, appeals, contract disputes, commercial and corporate disputes, complex business litigation and employment disputes.