When Martha Toomey's husband Oscar died, she happened to know the user name and password to his Delta frequent flyer account, and has been helping herself ever since to his 500,000-plus SkyMiles, which is why we've changed her name for the purposes of this article.
You see, what Martha is doing isn't strictly "legal." Posthumously, Oscar has sent his widow on a trip to Europe in business class and on several jaunts to visit her grandchildren in Boston. "I've 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 Los Angeles-based retiree confesses. The "legal" way for her to use her late spouse's miles would be to fill in some paper work and request that the miles be transferred to her name as his heir, indeed perhaps paying a transfer fee with some airline programs.
Most airlines do make it easy to transfer miles between the living, 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.
And despite the fact that many airlines issue blanket statements in their rules that miles are not transferable, period, Airfarewatchdog has found that the airlines do in fact allow miles to be inherited, or to be awarded in a divorce settlement, and you'll get an entirely different answer from what you see on the airlines' web sites if you give a call to their frequent flyer service departments, as this chart shows.
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. Continental, in contrast, doesn't charge a fee for transferring miles to an heir.
But why pay a fee and deal with the airlines at all?
Why not take the Toomey approach by pretending your deceased love one is still alive? 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.
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.
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