Being named as the Executor (for men) or the Executrix (for woman) of the Last Will is a job that entails a lot of responsibility. Some of your duties include, finding out any taxes or debts that the testator (person who has made a living will) has, preparing a list of their assets, distributing assets to beneficiaries named on the last will, as well as planning the funeral.
Some people may not have updated their will for years, so when they finally pass and you are named executor, it might come as a surprise. If there is no will in place, the probate court will appoint someone as executor/executrix.
Fulfilling the duties of an executor is a time consuming endeavor that can sometimes be dragged out for years. If you do not want to be the executor of the will for any number of reasons, there is a way to renounce the position and pass it on to somebody else.
Keep in mind, it is a much simpler process to step down as an executor of a will before you are officially appointed executor of the will by probate court, and before you begin fulfilling any duties as an executor. If you are have completed any tasks associated with your role as executor then you will need receipts and files of any completed paperwork that documents what you have already done.
Step 1. Notify the Heirs of the Estate
This is not required if you want to step down as executor of the will, however, it is polite to contact heirs before filing a Renunciation of Executor form. It also helps give more time to other family members for deciding who should step up as executor. A little bit of open communication can go a long way in ensuring a smooth transition from one executor to the other.
Step 2. Declining Nomination as Executor Before Court Appointment
You can step down as executor before formal court appointment without giving a reason. In most states all you need to complete is a Renunciation of Executor form, which is a legal document that states the person named in the will as executor will not act as executor for the estate. This form can be filled out in your local probate court. Some states offer this form online as well. Once the court approves the filing you are officially released from your obligations.
Resignation After Court Appointment
If you have already been appointed executor by probate court, stepping down as executor becomes more challenging. If you've already been appointed by the probate court, but haven't settled the estate yet, you must file a petition in court for removal. It always helps to have strong reason to step down from your role as executor because the probate judge can always reject your plea to resign (at least in some states). In some states you have to get confirmation from every single beneficiary listed in the last will before you can resign from your role as executor.
If you resign as executor after having started probate court proceedings, you are required to provide a written record of what (if anything) you have done. This detailed account of all work you performed as executor to date should include a list of all assets and debts of the estate, including current balances, as well as receipts for any transfers you made to heirs and beneficiaries. In most cases, you will not obtain a formal release from the probate court until you provide this documentation.
Step 3. Finding a Successor
The rules on finding a successor to take your place vary by state. In some states you may officially name a successor to the executor of the will. If you are allowed to choose someone to become the new executor/executrix of the will, it greatly helps to find somebody who is willing and capable of fulfilling the duties of the executor. One of the best ways to go about finding a successor is to bring it to a vote within the family.
In some cases a co-executor might be listed in the last will, in which case they would be the next person to take over the responsibilities of executor/executrix. Some states will appoint the next executor themselves, normally going by whoever is next of kin based on a statutory list.
As with all judicial processes, you should expect delays if you do choose to step down as executor after you have been officially appointed. Probate court is notorious for its slow moving pace. Some estates can take years to be distributed among family and friends.
The difference in state probate laws makes this process more complicated than it should be. In any situation where you are unclear on the laws and regulations AND you are dealing with often large sums of money, it always helps to talk to a lawyer knowledgeable on probate proceedings in your state.
If you are interested, check out, Checklist of Everything You Need To Do When a Loved One Dies for helpful information on closing accounts and memberships of the decedent.