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Do Frequent Flier Miles Expire When You Do?
Accumulated frequent flier miles can be valuable assets, but what happens to those miles after someone dies? Can a spouse or other heirs inherit them, or do the miles simply evaporate like a contrail?
The answer to whether they can be inherited depends on the airline, but consumer experts say that even if the airline’s official policy is “no,” with a little perseverance the answer could still be “yes.”
“What you often find is that the formal policy, as found in their terms and conditions, says that frequent flier miles cannot be given away through wills, but when you call the customer service center you find out that yes, in fact they will allow that,” Tim Winship, editor of FrequentFlier.com, told The New York Times in 2012. “What you get is two very different versions of what they will and won’t do.”
For example, JetBlue’s official policy seems unambiguous and airtight: “14. Miscellaneous Provisions. 14.1 Points are non-transferable and may not be combined among TrueBlue Members, their estates, successors and assigns. Accrued Points and Award Travel do not constitute property of Member and are non-transferable (i) upon death, (ii) as part of a domestic relations matter, or (iii) otherwise.”
However, the website NerdWallet reported in January 2014 that when it called JetBlue’s customer service department, it was told that a beneficiary could inherit by supplying a death certificate and proof of beneficiary status.
Other airlines put their mixed message right in their official policy statement. American Airlines currently states that: “Neither accrued mileage, nor award tickets, nor status, nor upgrades are transferable by the member (i) upon death, (ii) as part of a domestic relations matter, or (iii) otherwise by operation of law. However, American Airlines, in its sole discretion, may credit accrued mileage to persons specifically identified in court approved divorce decrees and wills upon receipt of documentation satisfactory to American Airlines and upon payment of any applicable fees.” [emphasis added]
United is more succinct: “Accrued mileage and certificates do not constitute property of the member and are not transferable other than as authorized and/or sponsored by United.” [emphasis added]
In 2013, the website airfarewatchdog made five separate calls to United sales reps about inheriting MileagePlus accounts and reported that it “received a myriad of answers from a flat-out ‘no’ to a full-on ‘yes.’ It appears that some agents will allow you to transfer miles between the account of the deceased and a beneficiary.” But, as do many airlines, United charges a fee for transfers -- in their case $150.
“It never hurts to ask,” advises The Points Guy. “Airline employees have shown themselves to be endearingly human when faced with a customer’s grief.”
This has been the case with Delta, which caused some turbulence among its customers a couple of years ago when it announced it was disallowing transfers of miles after death, an abrupt shift from its former policy of permitting them via an affidavit. Although miles are now officially forfeited upon death, when airfarwatchdog contacted Delta in 2013 “a phone agent admitted that Delta would not know of one's death unless notified (hinting that the onus is on the family member to enforce this policy).” A year later, NerdWallet reported that “If you have access to the [SkyMiles] account in question, miles can be transferred for a processing fee and a fee per mile. WorldPerks accounts should have already been transferred, but if not can be transferred at no cost.”
If you know your deceased spouse’s or other relative’s frequent flier number and password, what’s to stop you from simply using the miles? That’s certainly possible, although misrepresenting yourself would violate mileage program rules. Moreover, you could easily have miles left over that are not sufficient for a ticket unless transferred to another account. You could also run into problems if you use a different credit card than the one linked to the deceased frequent flier’s account, or have a different address or last name.
“I make it a point not to recommend that my readers break program operators’ rules, even if they are rules I disagree with,” FrequentFlier.com’s Tim Winship writes. “So I will leave you with a question: Is it worth the risk of being discovered and losing the miles to avoid the hassle and, possibly, the expense of going through authorized channels?”
Your spouse or heir will probably have a better argument with the airline if you specify in your will who should inherit your miles or points. And, as The Points Guy points out, “If you’re in the unfortunate situation of knowing you’ll soon die, either use the heck out of those miles, or start transferring them now.”