What Is "Per Stirpes"?

Per Stirpes Explained in Less Than Five Minutes

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"Per stirpes" is a designation made during estate planning. It refers to how your estate would be distributed if your beneficiaries were to die before you. In that situation, they take from your estate by right of representation, meaning they'll inherit in a share equal to that of the individual they're representing.

Estate planning is filled with Latin-based terms, like "per stirpes," which can be intimidating. But it's important to understand what they mean when you're making a will or creating a living trust.

Definition and Example of Per Stirpes

Per stirpes translates loosely to "by roots" or "by branch" in Latin. It refers to your beneficiaries and what would happen if they were to die before you. Per stirpes may appear in your will as something like, "I leave XYZ to my then-living descendants, per stirpes."

Alternate names: By representation, by right of representation.

Per stirpes is commonly applied in cases of grandchildren. For example, let's say you're a parent of three children, and one of them predeceases you. The children of your deceased child—your grandchildren—would inherit a share of your estate in their parent's place, through the parent's "branch" of their right to the estate.

How Per Stirpes Works

Whatever bequest a parent—your child—would have been entitled to receive from your estate moves to their children if they predecease you.

If you have two children, each of them might receive a one-half share of your estate. Your grandchildren will receive nothing—at least while their parents are living. But if one of your children should predecease you, their one-half share would pass in its entirety to their children. 

If they are the parent of three of your grandchildren, each of those grandchildren would receive one-third of their parent's one-half share of your estate, or one-sixth in total. Your other child would still receive their one-half share, and your deceased child's one-half share would be divided equally among their three children.

One-half divided by three equals one-sixth of your overall estate, so that's what each of these three grandchildren would receive.

How "Per Stirpes" Compares to "Per Capita"

Besides per stirpes, another type of distribution method to "per capita." Per capita translates loosely to "by headcount." You might see this presented in a will or trust as something like, "I leave XYZ to my then-living descendants, per capita."

Let's say you have two children and five grandchildren who survive you. In that case, each individual would receive a one-seventh share of your estate in a per capita distribution; that's because there are seven of them.

If one of your children predeceases you, each of the others would receive a one-sixth share because now there are only six of them. Your deceased child's share effectively returns to your estate; it doesn't pass to their descendants. The right of representation becomes moot because your grandchildren are already receiving a share. 

What Happens If You Die Without a Will? 

These terms are not just important in your last will and testament or living trust agreement. If you should die without an estate plan in place, your property will pass to your heirs according to your state's rules for intestate succession.

In other words, your state's laws would determine who gets what of your property and assets. Your state's code will provide that your closest living relatives will inherit from you either by a per stirpes distribution system or a per capita distribution system. It varies from state to state.

It is a very good reason to create an estate plan if you haven't already done so, particularly if you're not in agreement with the way your state will automatically distribute your estate and you have a large family. Your will or living trust agreement effectively supersedes these state laws. 

Important

Even if you're unmarried and have only one child and no grandchildren, state law will intercede at your death if you don't have an estate plan in place.

If your child predeceases you, your estate will likely pass to more distant relatives, some of whom you might not have wanted to inherit from you. In a worst-case scenario, it's possible that your estate could "escheat" to the state if you leave no living relatives. It is the case regardless of whether your state defaults to a per capita or per stirpes distribution system.

Your estate planning attorney can help you review your options to determine what best meets your needs. 

Key Takeaways

  • Per stirpes is a designation made during estate planning in which beneficiaries inherit the estate by right of representation.
  • If one of your children predeceases you, their share of the estate will be split amongst their children or heirs.
  • Another type of estate planning designation is "per capita," in which all eligible descendants receive the same share, and the share of any deceased descendants returns to your estate.
  • If you don't designate "per stirpes" or "per capita" on your will, your property will pass to your heirs according to your state's rules for intestate succession.