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Per stirpes meaning & per capita in deceased estates

Per stirpes distribution

infographic of per stirpes distribution in inheritance law, succesion law,
Per stirpes distribution

Per stirpes (Latin, meaning by the stock) and per capita (by the head) are ways in which a person’s estate can be distributed among their descendants. 

They are terms referring to different ways of distributing property among a group or class of people. 

The situation these terms per stirpes and per capita address is where one or more family descendants of a person have predeceased them. Per stirpes means ‘by the stocks, roots or branch” and per capita means ‘by the head’, by each individual person in equal shares.

Distribution in a deceased estate per stirpes

Dividing a deceased estate per stirpes is about distributing it equally among the branches of the person’s family.   It is a feature of this type of distribution that descendants further removed from the will-maker are not entitled to anything ahead of or in competition with closer descendants.   No child is entitled to a share while their parent is still living.

So in the example below grandchildren only become entitled to inherit if their parent has predeceased the will-maker.  With stirpital distribution it is only when there is a deceased ancestor that descendants of a lower degree (further down the branch) become entitled to inherit.

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How distributing property to “my children” by the “per stirpes” method operates. Compare to using the “per capita” method.

In this example the will-maker’s two children are entitled to inherit half each.  However Child 1 has predeceased the will-maker so that half-share falls to be divided equally among surviving members of the second generation below, being the two children of Child 1.  These are grandchildren of the will-maker and are entitled to take one quarter each.  Not so their cousins in the other branch of the family.  They are not entitled to anything as  their parent, Child 2 was living and so inherited the other half-share.

Problems with per stirpes distribution

Some feelings of resentment may arise among grandchildren, where some become entitled to inherit due to a deceased ancestor and others don’t.   With smaller or one-child families, it is possible that a great grandchild with both a deceased parent and grandparent may end up with a larger share than that of a great aunt or uncle.

Per capita distribution

Per capita distribution is based on the total number of descendants who are living when  the will-maker dies, regardless of generation.  All living children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren are potentially members of the group entitled to equal shares.  So in the example below as there are 5 living descendants each would be entitled to one fifth each.  It doesn’t matter that one is a child and the others grandchildren.

Problems with per capita distribution


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How distributing property “per capita” works when a child has pre-deceased the will-maker.

It may take considerable time to locate all family members potentially eligible to inherit.  This can delay estate administration.  Living children of a deceased child are not entitled to inherit their deceased parents’ share.  Another source of contention might arise where children and grandchildren inherit the same amount. A child may resent that a niece or nephew has inherited the same proportion as them.


A person’s descendants are often referred to as “issue” in succession and inheritance law. The legal term ‘issue’ refers to more family than just ‘children’.  Consequently it can cause confusion when interpreting a will maker’s intentions unless care is taken.  See this article on using the words “issue” and “children” in wills.

Intestacy – dying without leaving a will, how is the estate distributed

The statutory rules mostly follow the per stirpes method, per the legislation. 

B Stead
BHS Legal
Updated 10 October 2020


Important notice: This article is intended for general interest and information only. It contains general information and is not specific to anyone’s personal circumstances. It is not legal advice nor should it be used as such. Always consult a legal practitioner for specialist legal advice specific to your needs and circumstances and rely upon that. While every effort is made to ensure accuracy at the time of writing applicable laws may change.

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