What to do when you’re too overwhelmed to serve as executor

4 min read

When you’re the executor but you are exhausted with grief

  • Serving as executor of a loved one’s estate demands a lot from you at a time when you may feel empty, sad, and worn out.

  • One way to lessen the load is to hire professionals to take on specific aspects of the probate process and support you as executor.

  • If managing the probate process is still too much for you to take on, you can resign and the judge will appoint another executor.

  • Communicating what you’re capable of is critical, since failing in your executor duties can open you up to civil and criminal consequences.

If you’re the executor of your loved one’s estate, you’re grieving along with everyone else in your family and community—but at the same time, you have responsibilities that no one else has. Executor duties can add up to a significant workload, which is one reason that most executors are paid in some way. 

But what if you’re not up to it, physically and emotionally? In the depths of grief, if you feel too overwhelmed to settle your loved one’s affairs, you have several options.

First, focus on grieving

The probate process usually begins within a few months after your loved one has passed away. Many people who feel overwhelmed initially are ready to tackle this solemn duty after they have mourned their loved ones alone and in community during that time.

But grief is not a linear journey, and when you start to settle the affairs of the estate, this can resurface raw, overwhelming emotions. Or you may simply still be processing your loss months later, which is completely normal, as everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time.

Guiding the estate through the probate process smoothly and in a timely manner while also taking care of yourself through your grief, may initially seem beyond your reach. Make sure you take the time you need to process what you are feeling, so that you can focus on the estate when it demands attention. This could mean setting aside a set amount of time every day to feel your feelings, joining a grief support group, or seeking the help of a professional to talk to.

You don’t have to go it alone

Remember that you can get help with the estate itself as well. In fact, every executor should consider seeking out expert professionals, especially since estate funds can be used to pay their fees. 

Many executors choose to hire a probate attorney to help them through the process and make sure they’re following all laws. But even for something like appraising and selling items, there are pros you can rely on to finish tasks quickly. 

After all, the role of the executor is to manage the probate process, not to handle every single detail. Once you have support in place, what seems overwhelming today may feel like a team effort that’s moving steadily toward a successful outcome. Make sure you’re communicating with other beneficiaries and updating them on the process so that they are up to date on how estate funds are being used.

If you want to resign

If your grief continues to feel debilitating, you have every right to focus on your health and well-being. Being an executor is a choice; it’s not compulsory.  

If you tell the probate court you will not be able to fill the role, you will either be passed over or removed from the executor role, depending on whether probate has officially started or not. The probate process will be put on hold, and the court will then find another executor to succeed you.

In most states, the beneficiaries of the estate will be notified of a hearing where they will be able to express their opinions about who should succeed you as executor—most often a spouse, child, parent, or sibling of the person will be named to the role.

The judge will make the final decision about who will replace you. You will return to the status of a regular family member or beneficiary, and you can focus on grieving without the weight of an executor's duties on your shoulders.

Consequences if you don’t get help

It is critical to notify the judge if you are not up to the task. If you remain executor and then do not fulfill your responsibilities as an executor, or if you fulfill them poorly or incompletely, you could face civil and even criminal penalties. 

If they believe you are not correctly handling the estate, one or more of the beneficiaries can petition to have you removed as executor. Depending on the state, they can then sue you for any financial losses your errors have caused the estate. In addition, if the estate’s creditors can prove that your actions or your inaction resulted in them not getting paid money they were owed, they may be able to sue as well.

You can even risk being charged with a crime, most commonly theft, fraud, or embezzlement. Whether the crime is a misdemeanor or felony usually depends on the amount of money involved and the specific laws in your state.

But this can all be avoided, as long as you are transparent about what’s going on with you. There’s no shame in needing help as an executor, whether that takes the form of a hired professional to guide you through the probate process, or someone to replace you altogether ●