January 4, 2024 (NORTH CAROLINA) – With a focus to promote less restrictive alternatives to guardianship, otherwise known as supported decision-making, and to ensure the rights of people before and after the appointment of a guardian), Senate Bill 308, otherwise known as the Guardianship Rights Bill, was passed unanimously in the Senate (47-0), and later became Senate Bill 615 which passed in the Senate and the House. Governor Roy Cooper signed it into law on September 28, 2023.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, supported decision-making (SDM) allows people with disabilities to retain their decision-making capacity by choosing supporters to help them make choices. A person using SDM selects trusted advisors, such as friends, family members, or professionals, to serve as supporters. The supporters agree to help the person with a disability understand, consider, and communicate decisions, giving the person with a disability the tools to make their own informed decisions.
“The right to make decisions is the essence of becoming an adult and making choices about one’s life,” said Linda Kendall-Fields, Director of the UNC Cares Program and leader of the initiative. “Guardianship should always be used as a last resort as it removes the individual’s constitutional right to make important life decisions, such as how to use money and where to live. Sometimes it is necessary and then it should be practiced with great consideration of the individual’s expressed wishes. But in North Carolina, like other places in the United States, it has been used too easily, with great consequence for people with IDD. This law is a triumph for choice and self-determination.”
The policy education and advocacy efforts that led to guardianship reform were led by “Making Alternatives to Guardianship a Reality in North Carolina (MAR-NC),” an initiative funded by the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities (NCCDD) and administered by the Cares Program at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work. MAR-NC was instrumental in the passage of a consensus bill for guardianship reform by creating a coalition aimed to affect long-term changes in North Carolina’s guardianship system that would increase choice and self-direction for individuals with intellectual or other developmental disabilities (I/DD).
The MAR-NC statutory writing team created a draft spelling out important reforms and then partnered with the Conference of Superior Clerks of Court, the UNC School of Government, and the Estate Planning & Fiduciary Law Sections of the state bar to finalize proposed statutory changes. The agreed upon changes were, (1) a mandate to consider alternatives that carry the least restrictions for the lives of people facing potential guardianship; (2) a need to make sure all parties are fully informed about relevant rights; and (3) the ability of courts to monitor guardianships and call for hearings if needed.
Passage of Senate Bill 615 is important for individuals with I/DD and their families, specifically in allowing people with I/DD to choose the people they want to help them make choices and expand their freedom of how they choose to live.
“This law is a great example of how policy education and advocacy with a collective effort can lead to systems change that benefits individuals with I/DD and their families,” said Talley Wells, executive director of NCCDD. “People with disabilities should be able to make well-informed decisions about their lives, and this law empowers them to be aware of their rights to do so.”
The MAR-NC initiative was built upon the successes from a five-year Collective Impact initiative called “Rethinking Guardianship,” a statewide workgroup that has, with support from UNC Cares at the School of Social Work in Chapel Hill, established strong partnerships with individuals with I/DD, their families, leaders in the North Carolina State Bar and other stakeholders.
In addition to the passage of the bill, the MAR-NC initiative’s activities included reaching over 1,400 individuals through educational trainings and outreach; creating awareness among self-advocates, family, friends and professionals of the concept of supported decision-making; and developing educational materials in English and Spanish about supporting choice and self-determination.
Learn more about the MAR-NC initiative by reading its final report by visiting the Rethinking Guardianship website at https://rethinkingguardianshipnc.org/.