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Points are a form of currency, and as with any asset, when people build up a sizeable points portfolio, they need to think about what will happen to those points and miles after they die. I suspect a lot of people just let those points expire or never redeem them, but there’s no reason that has to be the case. Well, not always.
Last week, Delta initiated a quiet change to SkyMiles where miles can no longer be reinstated or transferred to benficiaries after a member’s death. Previously the administrator of a person’s estate could request that the airline reinstate the miles and transfer them to the accounts of other members, but now that is no longer possible.
Per Delta’s SkyMiles membership guide, “Miles are not the property of any Member. Except as specifically authorized in the Membership Guide and Program Rules or otherwise in writing by an officer of Delta, miles may not be sold, attached, seized, levied upon, pledged, or transferred under any circumstances, including, without limitation, by operation of law, upon death, or in connection with any domestic relations dispute and/or legal proceeding.”
That got me thinking about what the other airline, hotel and credit card program policies on the transfer of miles after death were and it turns out that salvaging miles after a person is deceased is becoming downright impossible with most of them according to their formal terms and conditions. However, according to this New York Times article, the reality is that many of the programs will allow successors to retain the deceased’s unused miles, so it’s not quite as bleak as the legalese makes it sound.
Here’s what I found.
American Express Membership Rewards’ terms page states:
“The Membership Rewards® points accumulated by a deceased Cardmember may be reinstated to a new basic account or be redeemed by the estate of the deceased Cardmember.
If you are already an Additional Cardmember on the deceased account:
1. Assume ownership of the account, for details please see Taking over the account.
2. Call us and request to reinstate the points to your new account. Contact our dedicated Membership Rewards team at 1-800-297-3276 Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 12:00 am EST and Saturday between 10:00 am and 6:30 pm EST.
If you have chosen not to assume ownership of the account or are not an additional Cardmember:
1. The Executor of the Estate must send a formal written request to the Membership Rewards® Correspondence Unit for the distribution of the points. The written request must include:
• The name and position of the Executor of the estate
• Name(s) of individual(s) designated/entitled to the Membership Rewards® points
• Specific redemptions to process (e.g. 50,000 to Delta, 10,000 Home Depot)
• A copy of the death certificate
2. The written request should be addressed to:
Membership Rewards® Correspondence Unit
American Express Membership Rewards
PO Box 297813
Ft Lauderdale, FL 33329-7813
Please note accrued points in Membership Rewards® will be forfeited immediately upon cancellation of all Cards so please make sure to redeem points before cancelling the account. Depending on the Card, the estate might only be able to redeem points within a certain time frame.”
Chase states that of a cardmember is deceased, the account can be taken over by a joint cardmember or an authorized user or the account would be closed. Ultimate Rewards would remain available for redemption if the account is taken over. The rewards would be forfeited if the account is closed.
Chase allows you to transfer Ultimate Rewards for free to others by logging in to ultimaterewards.com -> Manage Ultimate Rewards -> Combine points -> Then select the account to transfer from and under To: select “Other” and you can enter in the credit card number and name of the person to transfer. Technically this should only be done for family members or additional cardholders under your business account. There have been a few reports of people’s points getting forfeited for activity that Chase deemed fraudulent, so I do not recommend abusing this feature.
American: American‘s site says, “Except as otherwise explained below, mileage credit is not transferable and may not be combined among AAdvantage members, their estates, successors and assigns. Accrued mileage credit and award tickets do not constitute property of the member. Neither accrued mileage, nor award tickets, 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.” However, per that NYT article, beneficiaries can submit transfer requests and the airline usually processes them within 7 days.
United: United also makes it impossible to transfer miles upon death: “Accrued mileage and certificates do not constitute property of the member. Neither accrued mileage nor certificates are transferable (i) upon death, (ii) as part of a domestic relations matter, or (iv) otherwise by operation of law.” However, there are reports that you can call into MileagePlus and request a transfer by submitting documentation and paying a $75 transfer fee.
US Airways: The one bright spot is US Airways, whose policy states: “All outstanding mileage may be transferred to the estate of a member upon a member’s death, after production of appropriate documentation such as a death certificate and proof of beneficiary within 12 months of the member’s passing. Miles cannot be transferred if the deceased member’s account has been inactive for more than 36 months at the time of the member’s passing. Mileage may not be transferred to any other person except pursuant to these rules.” That’s likely to change once the airline merges with American, though, and I suspect it will be American’s no-transfer policy that prevails.”
Southwest: Southwest, on the other hand, is a clear-cut no on points transfers. However, the airline won’t close an account, and if you have the deceased’s membership information, you can use those points to book travel for anyone before those points expire (after two years of inactivity).
JetBlue: JetBlue doesn’t have a formal death policy, but will consider transferring a deceased member’s TrueBlue points once the proper documentation has been submitted.
British Airways: British Airways outlines its death policy on its website and says: “Except as otherwise provided by British Airways and communicated to the Member, Avios points are not transferable (whether from person to person, account to account, statement to statement, card to card or otherwise) other than in accordance with the Conditions of Use relating to Transfer Avios and cannot be bequeathed, devised or otherwise transferred by operation of law.” If you are members of the same household, however, better to set up a Household Account where the miles are shared and the successors can put those miles to use without necessitating any transfers.
Air France: Turns out Air France also has this policy: “In the event of the death of a Member, the Company shall close that Member’s account upon receipt of the death certificate.” So use those miles before reporting the death to the airline.
When it comes to hotel points, it looks like loyalty programs are a bit more prepared to let a deceased person’s surviving family members or beneficiaries use their points.
Club Carlson: Club Carlson has no specific death rules but anyone can transfer points from one account to another. Club Carlson’s policy states “A member may transfer (“gift”) Points from their account to another Program member account by contacting Member Services. Except as expressly set forth in the Program Rules, Points may never be sold, exchanged, bartered, transferred, or given without our written consent. The Card is non-transferable and is the property of Carlson Hotels, to whom it must be returned upon request. The only right you acquire in the Points is to surrender them for redemption.” So probably best just to redeem directly from the member’s account here.
Hilton: Hilton’s policy states, “Accrued points and Reward Certificates and Confirmations do not constitute property of the Members. Except as specifically provided herein, neither accrued points nor Reward Certificates/Confirmations are transferable in the event of death, as part of a domestic relations matter or otherwise by operation of law. However, points and Certificates accrued by Mutual Fund Members may be used by either spouse listed on the account.” So be prepared in this case because Hilton does not want you to have a deceased person’s points!
Hyatt: Hyatt’s policy states “Accrued points do not constitute property of the Member. Hyatt Gold Passport points are for member’s benefit only and are not transferable to another person for any reason including divorce or inheritance. In the case of documented death of a Hyatt Gold Passport member, Hyatt Gold Passport points are transferable to a person sharing the same residential mailing address.” Better keep a proof of address on hand for these points.
Marriott: Marriott’s policy gives married couples and domestic partners the option of transferring, stating, “Accrued Points and Miles do not constitute property of the Member. Points accrued by a Rewards Program Member are for the Member’s benefit only and may not be transferred to anyone except as provided below. Points are transferable to a legal spouse or domestic partner in the case of documented death of the Member.”
Priority Club: Priority Club’s terms don’t seem to have any death-specific clauses, but regarding points transfers, “Priority Club Rewards points may be transferred between any two specifically designated member accounts. A member may authorize the transfer of the necessary number of Priority Club Rewards points into another member’s account. The cost to the member authorizing the transfer will be $5 USD per 1,000 points transferred, and can only be paid for by an accepted credit card. Follow the instructions at www.priorityclub.com/transferpoints or call your regional Priority Club Service Center for assistance. An Authorization to Transfer Points form must be completed and submitted in order to transfer the required number of points. Once the authorization for transfer is received and processed, the transferor relinquishes all rights to the transferred points. No cancellations or refunds are permitted. Other than as stated above, no transfer of points may occur.”
Starwood: Starwood’s policy is simple and straightforward – not to mention fair and generous: “In the event of death, Starwood may, in its sole discretion, allow unredeemed Starpoints to be transferred to a family member or a friend who is an active SPG Member upon Starwood’s receipt and review of all requested documentation and communications. Elite membership status and the related benefits will not transfer to the recipient of the Starpoints.”
So with all the murkiness surrounding the transfer of a deceased member’s miles, there are a couple of things that you can do to be prepared for the unforeseen.
First, consider whether transferring is really the best option. It’s usually an expensive waste of time among living members of a frequent flyer program since airlines charge a per-mile fee, taxes and transaction processing fees that make those miles more expensive than they’re worth. Instead, just as I advise flyers every day, you can use anyone’s miles to book award tickets for pretty much anyone else, so instead of figuring out the hassle of transfers, just book the tickets directly from the account of the person who passed away. You might have some issues depending on what credit card you use – sometimes the one that you charge the taxes or fees on needs to match the name on the frequent flyer account, but that’s not always the case. Check out this post of a time when I redeemed Delta SkyMiles for a friend and I needed to show my credit card at the airport before they could fly.
Hotel programs do tend to let spouses and those sharing the same residence easily transfer points among themselves, though this sometimes incurs transfer fees, so again, I’d say better to just redeem directly from the member’s account.
In order to do that, of course, you’ll need account numbers and passwords, so be sure to keep your family members’ on file for this eventuality.
It may sound morbid, but frequent flyer miles are valuable, but you don’t technically own them (which is why the government is hesitant to start taxing them) so plan ahead. Letting them disappear or go to waste is tantamount to throwing out money and part of an inheritance. Far better to remember a loved one by using miles to travel somewhere they loved, or to bring your family together – that’s getting true value out of miles and a special legacy.