What Is Per Stirpes?

Per stirpes is a legal term stipulating that should a beneficiary predecease the testator—the person who has made out the will—the beneficiary's share of the inheritance goes to his heirs. While the term per stirpes is commonly used to refer to an individual's assets under a will, it is sometimes used in beneficiary designations for individual retirement accounts (IRAs). While per stirpes and per capita are similar, there are differences. Per capita means that any surviving descendants of the same generation distribute property equally.

If you die without a will, your estate goes to your heirs according to laws of the state in which you live.

How Per Stirpes Works

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 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.

Per Stirpes vs. 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 but 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.

Key Takeaways

  • Per stirpes stipulates that a beneficiary's heirs receive the inheritance should the beneficiary die before the testator.
  • The term refers to every person down a family tree beginning from another person.
  • Children may represent their parents if a parent passes before the decedent.

Per Stirpes Example

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.