“Per Capita” is from the Latin for “by the heads,” while “per stirpes” is Latin for “by the branch.” While this may seem symbolic, the definitions are quite literal in a legal sense.

The “head” and the “branch” to which these Latin terms refer are those of the family tree. These two terms have entirely opposite meanings regarding how your assets are distributed to your beneficiaries and, if confused, can cause drastic developments in your intended lineage.

What Does ‘Per Stirpes’ Mean for Your Beneficiaries?

If the legal term ‘per stirpes’ is found in a will, it stipulates what happens if a beneficiary passes before the will’s owner. If it were written as per stirpes, that means the beneficiaries’ heirs will receive an inheritance upon the deceased’s behalf.

In a typical scenario, these secondary beneficiaries would be the children of the intended inheritor. Or, possibly, the next closest person under the grantor’s family tree following the branches.

What is ‘Per Capita’ in a Will?

Suppose a will states that inheritance is to be per capita. In that case, that expresses that the grantor wishes an arrangement in which the estate or inheritance is to be distributed evenly amongst surviving heirs if a beneficiary were to die before the will is read.

If an heir is one of two or more beneficiaries designated within a will, per capita means the heir has a chance at inheriting more than an equal share. However, this would only occur if one of the fellow heirs were to die before the estate was distributed.

How Does the Difference Between ‘Per Capita’ and ‘Per Stirpes’ Affect the Bottom Line?

While setting up your final wishes, you will want to pay close attention to the wording. If you or your estate lawyer uses the wrong Latin phrase, you may end up distributing your assets in a way you did not wish them to be.

Remember that ‘capita’ is ‘head,’ meaning that in the case of an heir’s death, the inheritance goes back up to your spot on the family tree and then trickles down all of the branches evenly. Using per capita could result in unwanted heirs. More likely, a disagreement in who should possess which non-liquid inheritance may cause assets to be sold to be distributed evenly.

Alternatively, ‘stirpes’ or ‘branches’ means that the inheritance will continue down the branch after a beneficiary passes away to their heirs. Proper use of stirpes puts the onus of appropriate distribution into a smaller amount of hands and hopefully allows for fewer disagreements.