Turning 18, becoming a legal adult, and the freedom to do what you want. It’s every young person’s dream, and young adults with disabilities are no exception. In North Carolina, advocates say that there is a growing movement for parents and their adult children to consider alternatives to guardianship. All North Carolinians deserve a fulfilled and healthy life. Families and adults with disabilities have options beyond guardianship.


What is Guardianship?

  • Guardianship is a program to provide legal rights to the caretakers or parents of people with serious mental health or intellectual issues.
  • Obtaining guardianship of an adult means taking individual rights from them. In North Carolina, a parent seeking guardianship must file a petition with the Clerk of Superior Court, and the court must find their child to be legally “incompetent.”
  • Guardianship requires the person (usually a parent) seeking guardianship to file a lawsuit against the person they are seeking guardianship of (like an adult child).
  • Parents must inform family members via mail and give them an opportunity to object.
  • Law enforcement officers serve papers on the adult children to inform them a parent is seeking guardianship.
  • Some experts say it’s unnecessary to obtain guardianships because in many cases the young adult needs to make their own decisions in order to mature into adulthood properly.

A Different Route

Skipping guardianship gives adults with disabilities more freedom to become more independent. As reported by North Carolina Health News, most 18-year-olds make mistakes and require advice from their elders on financial, health, housing and career decisions. A person with disabilities is no different. They note that: “A group called Rethinking Guardianship — comprised of clerks of court, civil rights lawyers, university experts, state health and human services staff and other disability advocates — is working to improve North Carolina’s guardianship process and help people think about alternatives.”

Rethinking Guardianship, along with organizations like First Families of North Carolina (a nonprofit helping people with disabilities live independently in their community), offers workshops, advice, and planning to build a supportive network to allow adults independence. This includes will and estate planning, and advice on legal alternatives. As more families are skipping guardianship for their children with disabilities, they're exploring other legal methods to protect their loved ones. Options include partial guardianship, estate guardianship or a special needs trust. Parents can establish a healthcare power of attorney for adults so that medical matters can be covered with a parental eye.

Many 18-year-olds aren’t super responsible with money matters, and there aren’t many parents who wouldn’t want to keep an eye on their adult child’s spending. Parents can become the representative payee for Social Security benefits so no one is able to take advantage of their adult child’s finances. (Unfortunately, all 18-year-olds have to learn the hard way that money has to be budgeted for that second pizza.)

Adults with disabilities can live with roommates, learn how to balance their spending, and prepare their own meals. They can volunteer, go to college, and gain employment. Creating their own support system sets them up for success further down the line, when parents or caretakers are no longer able to provide. There will be growing pains, but these alternative methods allow young adults to take the steps needed to become as independent as possible.

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