Definition: Latin for “by roots or stocks; by representation.”
Context: In the estate planning context, typically this phrase is used in wills and trusts in connection with the word “descendants”, as in “my descendants, per stirpes.” This is used to indicate how a gift of inheritance would be distributed among individuals that are part of different generations of a family tree.
Significance: The courts in North Carolina and South Carolina have determined that the phrase “descendants, per stirpes” when used in estate planning documents indicates the direction that a gift be distributed to the gift giver's living lineal descendants, or “down their bloodline”. This would mean that if all the children of the gift giver were living, those children would be the only persons to inherit the gift and would do so in equal shares. However, if any of the gift giver's children were not alive at the time of the gift and the deceased child had living children of their own, such deceased child's share would be distributed to their children (the original gift giver's grandchildren) proportionally.
Example: Tom directs in his will that his assets should be distributed at his death to his “descendants, per stirpes.” At the time of Tom's death, he had one living child, Alice, and one deceased child, Matthew. Matthew has two children who are still living at the time of Tom's death. Since Tom left all his assets to his “descendants, per stirpes”, his living child, Alice, will receive 50% of Tom's assets. Tom's living grandchildren through his deceased son, Matthew, will each receive half of their father's original share, so each grandchild will receive 25% of Tom's assets.