An executor is responsible for carrying out a will's written directions and settling the final affairs of the will's author, or testator. If you were named as the executor of a deceased person's will, you are responsible for the duties and legal obligations of handling his estate. Due to the amount of work involved or other personal circumstances, you might have to resign as executor before or after you're appointed by the probate court.
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Once the testator dies, the executor must file the original will along with a probate petition in the probate court to start estate proceedings. If no one else with an interest in the estate -- the testator's heirs or specific beneficiaries named in his will, for example -- challenges your appointment as executor, you will receive authority to act as executor from the court. In your role as executor, you must maintain and protect the testator's assets. For example, an executor may pay a mortgage loan on the testator's home so the asset isn't lost to foreclosure; pay the deceased's final bills; and follow the directions in his will for distributing the assets to heirs. If you fail to meet all these obligations, the heirs and beneficiaries under the will can sue you in civil court for damages.
Renunciation Before Court Appointment
You can step down as executor before formal court appointment without giving a reason. A renunciation is a legal document that states the person named in the will as executor will not act as executor for the estate. Sign the renunciation form and file it in probate court after the testator's death but before you're formally appointed by the court. You file the renunciation document in the probate court that will handle or is already handling the estate, typically the probate court in the deceased person's last county of residence. Exact rules for renunciation vary by case and state. If you're filling a renunciation, notify the estate heirs and will beneficiaries before submitting the form to the court to give them time to find another qualified person to act as executor.
Resignation After Court Appointment
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. The court typically looks at your reason for resigning as executor and addresses the need for a qualified replacement. Acceptable reasons for resigning as executor vary by case and court, but common causes include your ill health or that of an immediate family member, and family emergencies, such as the death of a person in your household.
If you were already appointed executor by the probate court and are resigning, the court will require you to give a detailed account of all work you performed as executor to date. You must list all assets and debts of the estate, including current balances, as well as any transfers you made to heirs and will beneficiaries. The court will expect to see proof of your activities, such as account statements, signed releases from heirs indicating they received an asset or item from the estate, and receipts and canceled checks. In most cases, you will not obtain a formal release from the probate court until you provide this accounting.
You can resign as executor in some states by simply failing to take any action after the testator dies. State laws typically give an executor a deadline in which to file the will with the court -- often 30 days from the date of the testator's death. If the executor fails to file the will in the required time period, another party with an interest in the estate can file instead. Your failure to act as executor in time is viewed by the probate court as a renunciation of your executor duties. Resigning by not acting delays estate proceedings and can create confusion and hardship for the heirs.
Executors are released from further obligations to the estate once the final settlement of the estate is filed and the court accepts the account. When you've paid the bills, fulfilled all the will's provisions, disposed of all the deceased person's assets and belongings, and filed estate tax returns, you can file a final accounting with the probate court and ask for a release. Once the release is issued, the estate is officially closed and you're officially released by the court from the position of executor.