Per Stirpes, Per Capita, and By Representation – What does this all mean and why this may impact your estate planning!

Per Stirpes. Per Capita. By Representation. Have you come across any of these terms in your (or a family member’s) estate planning documents? If you have, did you truly understood what they meant? Chances are you may have glossed over these terms of art, never giving much consideration, knowing they sounded strange, or assuming they were typos. Whatever the case, you might have put those thoughts aside, not reading into it further.  However, in certain circumstances, these terms may have a large impact your estate planning.

When the recipient of property under a will (or by intestate succession) dies before the death of the person leaving the property, a determination must be made as to who will receive the property. [1]

Per Stirpes (which means “by way of the stems or stocks” in Latin) and Per Capita (Latin for “by way of the heads”) are the two most commonly used methods to divide property.  In some states, there is also a third hybrid method known as “Per Capita at Each Generation” or “By Representation.” New Jersey, like the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), has adopted this hybrid approach.

These terminologies rarely make a difference when all of your named beneficiaries are alive at the time of your death. However, they may make a significant impact when one or more beneficiaries have predeceased you, and have left behind children themselves. This could leave your fiduciaries in a bind if the document does not clearly spell out who should receive the property.

Here is an example which may help understand the concepts better:

Facts: A, the Testator, has 3 children, C, D, and E. C died two years ago leaving behind 3 children – P, Q, and R. D died last year leaving behind 1 child – S. E is alive with no children of her own. If A dies, the terminology specifies how the asset divisions would play out:

  • Per Stirpes: C, D, and E would each get 1/3 share. Since C is predeceased, his children, P, Q, and R would equally share 1/3 of this share (1/6 each); S would get the full 1/3 share of D; and E would get her full 1/3.
  • Per Capita: Here, there would be 5 shares for the total of 5 heads: 3 shares for C’s children, 1 share for D’s child, and 1 for E. Everyone, including E, would get 1/5 of the estate.
  • Per Capita at Each Generation or By Representation: In this method of distribution, each surviving child (or the generation nearest to the designated ancestor) gets a share, and all of the remaining shares are divided equally among the surviving descendants of the deceased children. Therefore, in the above example, E would keep her 1/3 share and the 4 grandkids (3 children of C, and 1 child of D) would get to equally share the remaining 2/3.

Key Takeaway

If you would like your estate to be divided in a specific way, it is important to have a discussion with your estate planning attorney, who can choose the right terminology to help fulfill your objectives.

[1] Robert B. Fleming & Lisa Nachmias Davis, Elder Law Answer Book, Q 4:25 (4th Edition, 2021-2 Supp. 2016)