What Does Per Stirpes Mean?

What does per stirpes mean?


Estate planning is sometimes criticized for using too much “legalese”, or language that only attorneys understand. Some legal language comes from ancient Latin and can be confusing to the general public. One example is the term “per stirpes”. What does per stirpes mean? Here’s a simple explanation in plain English.

What Does “Per stirpes” Mean?

Per stirpes is a Latin phrase that means “by roots” or “by branch”. This legal term often appears in the context of estate planning to define how your assets should be passed down if a beneficiary were to pass away before you do. 

Per stirpes means that if a beneficiary dies before you do, their share of your estate will automatically and equally go to their descendants. 

Let’s say your estate is set up to be distributed “per stirpes” amongst your children, and a beneficiary dies before you do. All of the other named, living beneficiaries would still receive their original portion of your estate.  The remaining share would then be split equally amongst any heirs of the deceased beneficiary.

Essentially, per stirpes allows children to serve as representatives of their parents if a parent passes before the deceased person. Spouses are not included in per stirpes distribution because it only applies to descendants. 

How far down the family tree does this go? It covers as many generations as needed to distribute the assets. That may extend to children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or even great-great-grandchildren. 

Per Stirpes Vs Per Capita

While per stirpes stipulates that any predeceased beneficiary’s share of the inheritance goes to their heirs, there is a different approach called “per capita”, which means “by the heads”. With this approach, the inheritance is divided equally amongst the decedent’s living beneficiaries.

With a per capita distribution, assets are divided equally among living descendants in the next generation closest to the deceased person. With this approach, you would individually name each beneficiary. If one of the beneficiaries passes away, their share is not set aside. Your estate assets would simply be split amongst the remaining living beneficiaries. 

Examples of Per Stirpes and Per Capita

Here’s an example of how per stirpes differs from per capita in an estate distribution. Let’s say Abigail has three children: Bob, Carol, and Diane. All three of Abigail’s children have children of their own. Sadly, Bob dies before his mother.

With a per stirpes distribution, if Bob dies before Abigail, then when Abigail dies, her estate will be equally divided between Carol, Diane, and Bob’s children. If Bob had three children, each would receive a one-third equal share of their father’s portion of the inheritance.

With a per capita distribution, if Bob dies before Abigail, then when Abigail dies, her estate will be equally divided between Carol and Diane only. Bob’s children will not receive an inheritance from their grandmother Abigail.

Advantages of Per Stirpes

To determine what type of distribution is right for your circumstances, consult with an experienced estate planning lawyer. Potential advantages of a per stirpes distribution include:

  • Not needing to name contingent beneficiaries for every possible scenario.
  • Ensuring there are clear instructions for who will inherit your property if one of your primary beneficiaries passes away before you.
  • Eliminating the need to update your estate plan every time a beneficiary passes away while you’re still alive.

When Not to Use a Per Stirpes Distribution

Despite the advantages of per stirpes, some people may prefer a per capita distribution. Per stirpes may not be the best option if: 

  • You’d rather distribute your estate among only your remaining living beneficiaries.
  • You want to name a completely new contingent beneficiary if one of your primary beneficiaries passes away before you. 
  • You have a blended family and want to leave an inheritance to your stepchildren. Note: By law, only your biological or adopted children would inherit with a per stirpes distribution; stepchildren and step-grandchildren would not. If you want to include these family members, a per capita distribution may work better.

If you have any questions about creating an estate plan, feel free to contact our law firm.

Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt

The Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt is a California law firm specializing in Estate Planning; Trust Administration & Litigation; Probate; and Conservatorships. We've helped over 10,000 clients find peace of mind. We serve clients throughout the greater Sacramento region and the state of California.