Frequent flyer miles can be inherited, but it takes some work ... and a fee on some airlines

George Hobica, June 06, 2009
Fares from Washington DC:

    The other option is the American Express Membership Rewards program. Here you can earn miles on about 20 US and foreign airlines. The points never expire as long as you keep them in your Amex account, and you transfer them to the airline frequent flyer program of your choice, where they become miles, as needed. If you and your spouse have a points-earning card for the same account, either Card Member has control of the points and can use them at will as long as the "primary" member authorizes another card member to use them. All it takes is a simple phone call; no fees, no paperwork.

    By Andrea Bennett and George Hobica
    As if losing a loved one isn't bad enough, if that person dies and you're his or her spouse, some airlines make you pay a fee to inherit frequent flyer miles.
    As with any other asset you've accumulated in life, you can't bring frequent flier miles with you when you take that final flight to the great beyond. But your loved ones can profit from them after you're gone. Airfarewatchdog began pondering this issue when asked by a reader if there are uniform policies covering the transfer of these assets. Our reader, who recently lost her husband, wrote that, "I have just been pretending that he was still alive because I was afraid that I would either lose his miles or pay a big transfer fee."
    The answer, Airfarewatchdog found, is that each airline issues a slightly different printed policy in the program rules sections of their Web sites, and that these rules often conflict with what you'll hear if you call the airlines' frequent flyer desks (download chart with full details [PDF file]). 
    Frequent flyer miles are a liability for the airlines. With unredeemed miles in the trillions, they don't make it easy to collect what may reasonably be considered your inheritance, and two major airlines collect a fee to process the transfer. (In fact, by some estimates, 25 to 30 percent of accumulated miles end up expiring when the "owner" dies, letting airlines off the hook for the cost of redeeming them.)
    Most airlines do make it easy, however, to transfer miles between the living, again for a fee; but it's an expensive proposition, even when there are occasional transfer bonuses, sometimes as high as 100 percent. Plus, there are mileage transfer limits with these offers. United, for instance, allows any member to transfer between 5,000 and 15,000 miles per recipient per year for $0.015 per mile and a $35 fee. Only 60,000 miles can be transferred per year.
    Yet, many airlines protect themselves by issuing blanket statements in their rules that miles are not transferable, period.
    United clearly states that, "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 (iii) otherwise by operation of law."
    But the airlines also employ plenty of sympathetic humans, who might have discretion in interpreting the rules when you pick up the phone; not surprising since their published policies at times seem a contradictory jumble of legalese.
    Take American for instance: their rules plainly state that miles "are not transferable upon death". Well that sounds pretty conclusive, right? Except then we read a few lines later that, "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." So does that mean they fork over the miles or not? Turns out that if the AAdvantage account has fewer than 10,000 miles, there's no fee required (only proof of death is needed); if more than 10,000 miles, you'll pay a transfer fee of $50.
    And in the case of Continental OnePass , there's a separate set of rules printed online (which says you absolutely may not transfer miles to anyone, ever); but when you call the service center you might be told, as we were, that you can transfer miles to anyone for a fee and that transferring miles from a deceased's account to an inheritor's requires no fee (keep in mind that the airlines' frequent flyer rules can change at any moment, and that what you read here was accurate at the time of publication).
    Bottom line: every airline has slightly different printed policies, and what you hear from a call center representative may be different from what's printed (see chart, below). But you'll likely be able to claim a deceased's miles if you're persistent, present documentation, and, in some cases, pay a small fee (only American and United, of the major airlines that allow you to accrue miles without automatically issuing an award, charge a fee).

    But why pay a fee and deal with the airlines at all?
    Why not game the system by pretending the deceased is still alive, as our reader has done, and using his or her account user name and PIN (assuming you know it) to log in and obtain free tickets? Well, for one thing, this is against the rules, and if you're caught your miles will be forfeited.
    We're not suggesting you do this. We're just saying you could.
    But for those of you collecting miles in the future, if you'd like to avoid having to beg or pay for miles once a family member dies, there are two earning programs you should consider. One is the British Airways Executive Club, which allows you to set up a household account with up to four people living at the same address. Miles earned by one member are combined with those earned by the other three, and can be redeemed by any one of the four. BA lets you spend miles on American and other airlines.