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Translating Legalese with Barton Law: Per Stirpes

Welcome to our next four-part 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.

Per stirpes

The term "per stirpes" is a Latin phrase meaning "by branch" or "by the roots." In estate planning, this term is used to indicate that if a beneficiary dies, the share that the beneficiary would have received should instead go to his/her lineal descendants.

For example, if Mary drafts a Will leaving her estate equally to her sons, Jack, John and Jim, per stirpes and all three sons are living when she dies, they will each receive one-third of her estate. However, if Jim predeceases her and has two children of his own, 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 two children, Sally and Susan (Mary's grandchildren). In this example, this would allow her to include her grandchildren by Jim.

This designation allows us to continue to go "down the branch" until there is a living beneficiary to receive the share of the estate. In many cases, we only need to go down the branch to grandchildren, but in some cases we may need to continue down the branch to great-grandchildren or even further. Following the example above, if Jim's daughter Sally is living, but Susan has predeceased Mary and has a child of her own, Susan's share would now go to her child (Mary's great-grandchild). If Mary doesn't want to include her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on, she would not include this per stirpes language.

Unfortunately, clients often don't understand what "per stirpes" means and may fail to include this language where appropriate. This is often missed when completing beneficiary forms for retirement and investment accounts as these forms usually just provide a "per stirpes" checkbox. The checkbox is easy to miss and clients may disregard it anyway because they don't understand the term. Your financial advisor should be sure to point this out and suggest that you consult with your estate planning attorney on any decisions regarding these designations. The collaboration between your financial advisor and attorney ensures that your estate plan is cohesive.

Do you want to include your lineal descendants? This is a good time to double-check your estate planning documents and beneficiary forms!

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