DEFINITION of 'Per Stirpes'

Per stirpes is a stipulation that should a beneficiary predecease the testator, the beneficiary's share of the inheritance goes to his heirs. While the term per stirpes is commonly used in reference to an individual's assets under a will, it is sometimes used in beneficiary designations for individual retirement accounts.


Per stirpes, Latin for “by roots” or “by branch,” refers to every person down a family tree beginning from another person. For example, everyone below a mother, such as her children and great-grandchildren, is included in a branch. Per stirpes often appears in wills and retirement accounts to define asset distributions so that each part of a family tree is treated in accordance with the testator or account owner’s wishes. Children may stand as representatives of their parents if a parent passes before the decedent. Spouses are not considered in per stirpes distribution.

Examples of Per Stirpes Distributions

Tom is a widower with three children: Debbie, Al and Paul. Debbie dies, leaving her two children, Sarah and Dennis, Tom’s grandchildren. If Tom’s will divides his estate among his issue in equal shares per stirpes but does not define how “issue per stirpes” applies to the distribution, all of Tom’s living children and grandchildren are entitled to a share of his estate. However, if Tom’s will defines “issue per stirpes” to mean only the next generation inherits a share when he dies, Tom’s estate is divided differently: one-third each to Al and Paul and one-sixth each to Sarah and Dennis. If Tom’s son Al also predeceases him, Tom’s estate is again divided differently: one-half to Paul and one-quarter each to Sarah and Dennis.

Differences Between Per Stirpes and Per Capita

Per capita means “by the heads.” Also called “share and share alike,” property is divided equally among surviving descendants in the same generation nearest the testator. The estate holder names each recipient individually or determines which group receives the assets, such as all estate holder's children, grandchildren or both. A deceased person’s share is not set aside; it is mingled with the estate and divided among the other recipients. For example, Meg specifies her estate be divided per capita among her three children, Abby, Stephanie and Scott. Scott has two children, Cora and Max. If Abby dies, her portion remains with Meg’s other assets and is divided equally among her two living children, Stephanie and Scott. Cora and Max do not inherit anything.

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