Legally speaking, it is fairly easy to decline to act as the executor of a will: the only requirement is that you sign a “deed of renunciation” in front of an impartial witness, which must then be lodged with the Probate Service. It should be noted that you cannot appoint a successor should you choose not to act, but you can alternatively delegate your duties to a solicitor, whose fees will be paid by the estate. The latter option allows you to remain an executor whilst your solicitor assumes responsibility for all the administration. This approach could be worth considering if you wish to retain control over the process, but are daunted by the prospect of having to prepare all the paperwork yourself.
The only instance in which you will not be able to decline to act is if you have already “intermeddled” with the estate: that is, if you have already performed any of the duties of an executor. The sole exception to this is the funeral, which you may still arrange without jeopardising your right of renunciation. However, if you have already undertaken any of the executor’s other duties (such as obtaining asset valuations or arranging for payments to be made), then you will be viewed by the Probate Service as having accepted the role.
If you find yourself undecided as to whether or not to act as an executor, you may wish to consider having “Power Reserved”, which either your solicitor or the Probate Service can arrange for you. This option reserves your right to resume your executor duties at a later date, but enables the other executors named in the will to get on with the paperwork themselves. In this scenario, it is the remaining executors who obtain the Grant of Probate and thus it is they, and not you, who will be responsible for administering the estate. Although you may still participate in the decision-making process, the acting executors would in this instance be under no obligation to consult you unless, or until, you choose to resume your duties (and apply for your own Grant of Probate). If, however, you are the sole executor named in the will, the only options available to you are to either decline to act, or to have a solicitor act for you.