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Per Stirpes vs Per Capita - What’s the Difference?

Trust & Will explains the difference between per stirpes and per capita to help you better understand how assets are distributed in wills.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

When you’re first learning how to set up your estate, you’ll likely run into legal jargon that leaves you scratching your head. There might even be terms that sound so similar yet have entirely different meanings. If you’re not careful, you might even end up with an estate plan that is the exact opposite of what you intended. One such example is the two terms ‘per stirpes’ and ‘per capita’, which have to do with how your assets are distributed. You’ll want to keep reading to find out the difference between per stirpes and per capita, because accidentally mixing them up could result in two completely different outcomes.

What is Per Stirpes in a Will?

Per stirpes is a legal term used in a will that stipulates what should happen if one of your beneficiaries pass away before you. In the case of per stirpes, the inheritance will go to the deceased beneficiary’s heirs. Visit our Per Stirpes guide for an expanded definition.

What Does Per Stirpes Mean for Beneficiaries?

As a beneficiary, per stirpes means that your heirs will receive an inheritance on your behalf. This will take place in the event that you pass away before the grantor of the will. The grantor is the individual who created the will. 

In most cases, your heirs would be your children, or the closest person under your branch of the family tree. If you were in line to get an inheritance but passed away before the fact, your children would receive it instead. This helps offer a sense of security for you and your loved ones.

What is Per Capita in a Will?

In a will, per capita describes an arrangement in which if one of your beneficiaries were to pass away before you, your estate would be distributed evenly amongst your surviving beneficiaries. 

For example, let’s say that you have two children, Sarah and William. In your will, you provide instructions stating that your estate will be gifted evenly amongst the two. You include a per capital stipulation.

You live a long, healthy life and sadly, William passes away before you due to health complications. Upon your eventual passing, your estate will instead go to Sarah in full. 

What Does Per Capita Mean for Beneficiaries?

If you’re one of two or more beneficiaries designated in a will, per capita means that you may inherit more than your equal share of the estate. This would only occur if one of your fellow beneficiaries passes away before the estate is distributed. Their share of the estate would be split evenly amongst the surviving beneficiaries, and not to that individual’s heirs. If you were only one of two beneficiaries, you would inherit the estate in full.

What is the Difference Between Per Stirpes and Per Capita?

Per stirpes and per capita are two different types of stipulations that you can include in a will. The distribution of your assets can change based on which one you choose. Both per stirpes and per capita only come into play in a scenario in which a beneficiary passes away before you, the grantor. Per stirpes means that the beneficiary’s inheritance will be passed on to their next-in-line heir, or heirs. Per capita means that the beneficiary’s inheritance would be divided evenly amongst any surviving beneficiaries. 

A trick to help you remember the difference between per stirpes vs per capita is to remember their Latin origins. Per stirpes is Latin for “by branch,” while per capita means “by the heads.” The word branch could remind you that the inheritance goes down the beneficiary’s branch of the family tree. 

Per Stirpes vs Per Capita - The Bottom Line

The difference between per stirpes and per capita is pretty large, and you’ll especially want to pay close attention if you plan to have more than one beneficiary. It’s easy to get these two words mixed up because they sound so similar, but they create two completely different outcomes. When you set up or update your estate plan, make sure to look up the definition of each to make sure you’re implementing the distribution provision you intended. Don’t forget to use our trick to help you remember!

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