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Where do miles go when you're gone?

Frequent Flyer Q&A
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 20, 2002. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: frequent flyer, Frequent Flyer Q&A, ground transfer, Tim Winship.

Dear Tim,

When a spouse passes away, can their miles be transferred to the surviving spouse? Thanks.

Amy

Dear Amy,

If you were to take the programs at their word, you would assume that miles simply cannot be willed to or inherited from another person. Consider the following from the terms and conditions governing American's AAdvantage program, the world's largest:

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"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 certificates and award tickets do not constitute property of the member. Neither accrued mileage, award certificates or tickets 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."

Translation: They won't transfer miles, except in unspecified cases. The next-largest program, United's Mileage Plus, has legal verbiage in its member's guide that is less ambiguously negative:

"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."

Notwithstanding such seemingly explicit statements to the contrary, most programs will in fact allow miles to be transferred from one member to another in the event of death. Here's a first-hand report from Jonathon:

"My late wife had miles with several airlines and all accepted a copy of the death certificate for transferring her mileage to my account with not a word. All except American, who requested a notarized affidavit, a copy of the death certificate, and a $50 administrative charge. I find it shocking! As an alternative they suggest I donate the miles to the Miles for Kids in Need program, at no charge. Certainly a worthy cause, but sort of bending my arm to do this."

I have to agree: Slapping a grieving survivor with a service fee seems like the epitome of crassness. But American is within its rights to do so. And they're not alone in assessing a fee.

With all the above said, here's a checklist for anyone inheriting frequent flyer miles:

  • Begin by ignoring the program's official terms and conditions. As we've established, practices differ from policies. So rather than consulting the member's guide, call the program's service center to determine whether the miles can in fact be inherited.
  • If so, what documentation is required? In spouse-to-spouse transfers, it may be as simple as faxing a death certificate. More typically, you'll be asked to provide copies of both a death certificate and a will.
  • And finally, is there a fee for making the transfer? Even where the transfer is permitted, you probably won't want to spend the time and money if the decedent's account only has a few hundred miles in it.

Since we're on the subject, it's worth mentioning that anyone with a mileage account—and especially an account with a large number of miles—would do well to make explicit in his or her will who should receive those miles in the event of the member's death.

And to make it easier on your intended heirs, keep a record of the programs you're enrolled in, together with membership numbers and PINs. That way your loved ones will know what's coming to them...if, that is, the airlines "in their sole discretion" decide to honor your wishes.

 
 
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