If you read a bit about estate planning you may come across the term “Per Stirpes.” It is an awkward phrase to say, and there is little reason to use it outside the context of inheritance planning. It comes up when one lays out their inheritance designations, perhaps with a phrase like, “Fifty percent of the estate to Bob and Tom per stirpes.” Similarly, it may be written as “by representation.” This usually refers to the same thing.
So what is it? The short answer: Per Stirpes is Latin for “by the roots.” But that translation doesn’t help much. What it means in estate planning terms is that if the beneficiary dies then their descendants will get their share of the estate.
For example, say that the estate is worth $100,000. Per the terms of the will 50% of the estate should be split between Bob and Tom, with each getting $25,000. But what if Tom is not alive when he is set to receive that inheritance? Does Bob get his share instead? If the will stated that Bob and Tom were to receive their share on a per stirpes basis then the answer is No. Bob would not get the extra share. Instead, that share would go to Tom’s descendants–his own children. If Tom had one child, that child would get $25,000. If he had two children, then those children would split the $25,000.
These terms are often used in state “intestacy laws.” Intestacy laws are the default rules that apply to inheritance distribution when one dies without a will. For example, the New York intestacy statute (view online here) notes that if one dies without a will and is survived by a spouse and “issue” (another name for children) then the assets will be divided thusly: “fifty thousand dollars and one-half of the residue to the spouse, and the balance thereof to the issue by representation.”
In other words, in this situation, the spouse gets $50,000 plus half of whatever is left after that. The children split the remaining estate. However, if one of those children dies beforehand, then that child’s share will be split between his own children (if he has any).
In some situation, these representation issues can get quite confusing, especially if nieces and nephews, great-nieces, and similar family members are involved. Of course it is always prudent to consult with an estate planning attorney to get more detailed information about these legal matters.