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On Friday, it was revealed that celebrated chef and traveler Anthony Bourdain left his “accumulated frequent flyer miles” to his wife Ottavia Busia. They separated in 2016, but the divorce was not yet finalized upon Bourdain’s death, meaning she will still serve as executor of the estate. Bourdain’s estate was valued at $1.2 million, considerably smaller than you might anticipate given his appearances across current pop culture, though apparently he had additional assets in trust.

But his will brings up the question of whether you’re allowed to gift property that technically isn’t yours, which is what airline points and miles are according the vast majority of loyalty program terms and conditions:

Your miles aren’t yours, according to Delta.

Let’s take a look at several major frequent flyer programs in the US to see what’s allowed in the case of death, and then I’ll give you my advice on how to prepare for the unthinkable, but also inevitable.

In This Post

Alaska Airlines

(Photo by 400tmax / Getty Images)
(Photo by 400tmax / Getty Images)

You won’t find any official policy written on Alaska’s website, but a phone agent told me the airline simply requires a copy of a death certificate, and through its “Memorial Miles” program, it will transfer miles from the deceased’s account to a beneficiary fee-free.

American Airlines

Manchester, United Kingdom - May 11, 2017: American Airlines Boeing 767-300 wide-body passenger plane (N379AA) taxiing on Manchester International Airport tarmac. (Photo by Juha Remes / Getty Images).
(Photo by Juha Remes / Getty Images).

American has some language in its AAdvantage program terms and conditions which does not specifically allow transfer after death, but the airline gives itself a loophole to transfer the miles after approved legal documents have been submitted. Here’s what American specifically says:

“Except as otherwise explained below, mileage credit is not transferable and may not be combined among AAdvantage members, their estates, successors or assigns. Accrued mileage credit and award tickets do not constitute property of the member. 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.”

I gave American a call and the agent told me some rather generous and good news: If a loved one dies, call AAdvantage and the program will send an email to you requesting a copy of the death certificate and an affidavit. The affidavit will need to include the deceased member’s account number and the account info of the person(s) receiving the miles — you can even split the miles from the deceased between two or three accounts if desired. There is also no fee to transfer the miles. So despite the stiff terms and conditions, it seems American is actually rather understanding in the case of death.

Delta

(Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)

It appears you’re out of luck with Delta. According to the SkyMiles program terms and conditions, while SkyMiles never expire, your account will be closed in the case of death and the miles forfeited.

“Under the SkyMiles Mileage Expiration policy, miles do not expire.
 Delta reserves the right to deactivate or close an account under the following circumstances:

  • Fraudulent activity occurs.
  • A Member requests an account closure.
  • A Member is deceased.”

A Delta phone agent confirmed the policy, but also offered up the suggestion of ensuring ahead of time that my family has my SkyMiles login information so they can continue to use any miles I leave behind. She also said the only way the airline would transfer miles in these situations is by court order, so perhaps there’s something worth investigating if you want to go through that amount of effort.

JetBlue

JetBlue has been flying the Airbus A320, like this one seen at LaGuardia, since 2000 (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

You should typically enroll in JetBlue’s family pooling feature, which would alleviate any concerns you have about TrueBlue points expiring in the case of a death. But according to TrueBlue terms and conditions, you points are gone when you are:

“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.”

Again, I called the airline and a TrueBlue agent confirmed the points could not be moved, so it’s best to do family pooling or have your loved one’s login to continue to use the points in case something happens to them.

Southwest

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 planes prepare for takeoff at William P. Hobby international airport in Houston Texas, on November 18, 2015. (Photo by John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Photo by John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images)

Like many of these programs, the Southwest terms and conditions say one thing, and then customer service will give you the real scoop:

“In the event of a Member’s death, his/her account will become inactive after 24 months from the last earning date (unless the account is requested to be closed) and points will be unavailable for use.”

I called the corporate relations number for Southwest Rapid Rewards (855/234-4654, option #3) and asked what could be done in the case of death. The agent said a copy of the death certificate could be sent in and the Rapid Rewards from the deceased’s account would be moved to a beneficiary fee-free. Of course, the easiest option is to just ensure your loved one has access to your account and he or she can continue to redeem the points.

United

(Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)

The United MileagePlus terms and conditions state the following:

“In the event of the death or divorce of a Member, United may, in its sole discretion, credit all or a portion of such Member’s accrued mileage to authorized persons upon receipt of documentation satisfactory to United and payment of applicable fees.”

I called asked what the fees would be, but the agent could only tell me that the typical transfer fees may be waived, subject to the airline’s approval after the required documentation has been submitted. It sounds like there may be some hope to get this done for free.

Plan Ahead With These Steps

I’ve personally taken the following actions to ensure that my wife and kids can utilize my points and miles in case something happens to me:

  1. I track everything in AwardWallet and ensure my wife has access to the AwardWallet account. That way she has all the information she needs to continue using my points and miles without alerting an airline. Redeeming tickets for people other than yourself typically isn’t a problem for the majority of loyalty programs, though you do need to be careful if you have points or miles in programs like Korean, ANA, Asiana and JAL, which require family registration.
  2. Our wills both state that loyalty program points and miles go to the next of kin in line with succession, in case one or both of us pass.
  3. I’ve got a couple of my closest points and miles friends lined up to help my wife with all of these loyalty assets in case something happens to me.
  4. While doing the above research, almost all of the airline agents I spoke with volunteered the idea to make sure your loved one has your login information, so he or she can continue using your points or miles after you die without alerting the airline. In my opinion, this is the easiest and smartest strategy.

Bottom Line

We certainly don’t want to think about that day when we’ll go the way of the Concorde and L-1011 TriStar, but it’s even harder to think about a considerable stash of loyalty assets going to waste because you didn’t prepare. Our miles constitute thousands of dollars of free travel for many of us. Remember to not always believe what you read in a program’s terms and conditions — as shown above, a quick call to the airline can relieve some stress and provide comfort.

Featured image by Shutterstock.

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