Welcome to our monthly series: Translating Legalese with Barton Law. Legalese is used to describe legal terms and documents that are difficult for non-lawyers to understand. As attorneys, it is our job to translate these terms and documents for you to help you make well-informed decisions. Each month we translate legal terms that clients often find confusing so don't forget to check back in monthly!
The phrase "per stirpes" is a Latin phrase meaning "by branch" or "by the roots." This phrase is commonly used in estate planning and it is used to direct that if a beneficiary dies, the share that the beneficiary would have received should instead go to his lineal descendants. For example, if Mary drafts a Will leaving her Estate equally to her sons, Jack, John and Jim, per stirpes and Jim predeceases her, her Estate will then be distributed as follows: one-third to Jack, one-third to John and one-third to be divided equally between Jim's children. Unfortunately, clients often don't understand what "per stirpes" means and may fail to indicate a per stirpes designation where appropriate when completing beneficiary forms or, though highly unadvisable, when drafting DIY Wills. Beneficiary forms provided by financial institutions for retirement and investment accounts usually just provide a "per stirpes" checkbox so it is easy to miss. Your financial advisor should be sure to point this out and suggest that you consult with your estate planning attorney to ensure your beneficiary forms are consistent with your estate plan.