How to Decline Being Executor of a Will

The scale of learning how to decline being an executor of a will.

Being named as the executor of a will is both a great honor and a great responsibility. It means that someone trusted you to wrap up their final affairs and distribute their earthly goods according to their last wishes. However, an executor, also referred to as the personal representative of the estate, has a number of duties to carry out between the time the probate estate is opened and the distribution of assets. For various reasons, not everyone feels up to the task. What do you do when you realize, “I don’t want to be an executor of someone’s will?”

Why Would Someone Decline to Be Executor?

There are many reasons you might not want to be the executor of a deceased person’s (decedent’s) estate.

  • You have a demanding job or young family that needs your attention, and simply feel that you don’t have time.
  • You lived near the decedent when the will was made, but have since moved far enough away that serving as an executor would be inconvenient or impractical.
  • You are a family member of the decedent who has a contentious relationship with other beneficiaries of the estate.
  • You live outside of the state where the decedent last lived, and either the law of that state or the law of your state would not permit you to serve as executor (for instance, if you are not a family member of the decedent and you live outside of Ohio, you cannot serve as executor of an Ohio estate).
  • You find the legal or financial responsibilities of serving as executor intimidating and you lack the confidence to carry out this important role, especially if you would be a first-time executor.

The good news is that if you haven’t yet been appointed, you don’t have to present an “acceptable” reason to the probate court for why you don’t want to be an executor. A probate court will not force someone who is unwilling to serve as executor of a decedent’s estate. Furthermore, simply being named as executor in a will does not make you the executor of the estate; you must be appointed by the probate court and issued letters testamentary, which give you authority to act on behalf of the estate. If you decline to serve, the court will simply appoint another eligible person.

You can renounce the responsibility of serving as executor after the death of your loved one, but before you have been appointed to the role by the court.

How to Decline Being an Executor of a Will Before Death

The scenario above assumes that you find out after a loved one’s death that they have nominated you as the executor of their estate. But what if someone, like your best friend or favorite uncle, tells you that they want you to administer their estate?

In a way, this is a “good problem;” the sooner you can decline the role of executor, the more time the person making the will (the testator) has to find someone else who will be able to serve. Of course, this can be a delicate situation; the testator is honoring you with their trust, and you need to gently turn them down. You don’t want to upset them or hurt their feelings.

You might say something along the lines of, “I’m deeply honored that you want to trust me with this important role. It means so much to me that you have this kind of faith in me. But it’s a big responsibility, and I don’t want to let you or your family down. I honestly don’t feel that I will be up to the task, and you deserve an executor who is. As much as I would want to do this for you, I think it’s better for you to choose someone else.”

Ideally, your loved one would have asked you about your willingness to serve as executor before naming you as executor in their will. But if they didn't ask (or tell) you until after the fact, then they have a decision to make: either change that provision of their will, or risk having you decline to serve as executor when the time comes.

How to Resign as Executor of a Will

Perhaps an even more common scenario than declining to be an executor of a will before death involves a named executor accepting the role, and then realizing they can’t or don’t want to serve any longer. What happens when you realize, “I don’t want to be executor anymore?”

First things first: don’t beat yourself up. You are not letting your deceased loved one down. You want your loved one’s estate managed by someone in the best position to do that, and you have realized that that person is not you.

Unfortunately, withdrawing as executor of an estate is somewhat more complicated than just turning down the responsibility in the first place. You will have to file a petition with the probate court requesting permission to withdraw as executor, and you will have to give notice to all interested parties of your intent to withdraw. You will also have to provide an accounting of your financial transactions on behalf of the estate and an accurate inventory of estate assets.

The court will set a hearing on your petition and you will have to provide “good cause” acceptable to the court for your request to withdraw, such as some unforeseen and unavoidable responsibility that prevents you from carrying out your duties. If the court doesn’t find that you have good cause for withdrawal, the court may refuse to let you withdraw from your responsibilities.

In short, if you don’t think you want to serve as executor of a decedent’s estate, it is much easier to decline before you are appointed than when you are partway through administration of the estate. Declining to serve as executor as early as possible also makes matters less stressful for the decedent’s grieving loved ones.

Should You Decline or Resign the Executor Role?

If you’d genuinely like to serve as executor, but you don’t know what to do or feel that you need help, you don’t have to turn down the role just because you don’t feel confident. You are entitled to retain a probate attorney to help you with estate administration. Because probate attorneys regularly administer Ohio estates, they can help the process go more smoothly and efficiently. Their services are considered a benefit to the estate, and as such, probate attorney fees can usually be paid out of estate funds—not from the executor’s pocket.

An experienced probate attorney can take much of the work off your plate, and equally important, make sure that you don’t commit any errors that could prove costly to the estate or expose you to personal liability.

To learn more about how a probate attorney can help you decide whether to serve as executor of an estate, contact Gudorf Law Group to schedule a consultation.