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Can I Inherit Frequent Flyer Miles?

Hassling with frequent flyer miles doesn’t end even when you’re dead. Because travelers value their miles so highly, some who are unlucky enough to pass away before they get a chance to use them all would like to bequeath them to a surviving spouse or heir. And as the original frequent flyers start to reach advanced ages, the question is likely to arise ever more often over the next years. Heirs, too, are interested:

“A family member who recently died had a lot of frequent flyer miles, although I don’t know with which airline. How can I find out information on the frequent flyer miles? Can those miles be transferred to someone else?”

As is so often the case, the short answer is a firm “maybe.” Different airlines have different policies, and some don’t announce their policies at all. Our resident frequent flyer guru Tim Winship addressed this issue several years ago, but this reader’s current question indicates that an update may be in order.

What the Airlines Say

Six big North American lines—Air Canada, American, Continental, JetBlue, United, and US Airways—specifically address the issue of transfer to heirs (and divorced spouses) in their frequent flyer membership rules:

  • Air Canada: “Aeroplan miles or rewards are personal and cannot be assigned, traded, willed or otherwise transferred (other than with the consent of Aeroplan Canada Inc. and in accordance with the terms and conditions of the Aeroplan program.)”
  • American: “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.
  • Continental: “In the event of the death of a OnePass member, the mileage can be transferred to the surviving spouse or beneficiary. Miles can be transferred between OnePass accounts when mandated by a divorce decree. Please contact our OnePass Service Center if you need more information.”
  • JetBlue: “Points are non-transferable and may not be combined among TrueBlue members, their estates, successors and assigns. 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.
  • United: “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.”
  • US Airways: “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 6 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.”
  • Frequent flyer program rules posted online for AirTran, Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, and Southwest have nothing to say about the subject one way or the other (or if they do, I couldn’t find it).

In sum, American, Continental, and US Airways say “yes,” Air Canada says “maybe,” JetBlue and United say “no way,” and the others ignore the issue. Note the identical language at the beginning of the American and United statements, with United omitting the second part.

Who is Eligible

Even the airlines that allow transfer are pretty specific about who can claim the miles. As far as I can tell, you must be either a “surviving spouse” or mentioned as an heir in the deceased member’s will. To me, that says if your uncle Jack dies, for example, without citing you as a principal heir, you’re probably out of luck.

Of course, you can sometimes get around such a problem, at least partially. Have the miles transferred to someone who is an heir, then ask that heir to issue travel award(s) in your name.

What to Do

Requesting a transfer seems straightforward, although I have no doubt the process is heavily bureaucratic:

  • For the three carriers that say “yes,” get online for the information, then call the program office.
  • If you don’t know the deceased member’s airline or frequent flyer ID, check among his/her papers or tax documents to see if you can find a membership card or any used tickets that might be filed there. If not, ask the program office if name, address, email, and possibly SSN will be sufficient.
  • Make sure you’re enrolled in the airline’s program under your name.
  • Compile whatever documents the airline says it needs and follow instructions.
  • And, after the transfer, make sure you follow the program’s rules about mileage expiration.

On any other line, whether it officially says “no” or “maybe,” industry lore holds that even the lines that say “no” often actually allow the transfer, anyway. There’s nothing to lose by giving it a try. Keep in mind, however, that the legal language in the program rules is stacked in favor of the airline, so that if a line refuses your request, a lawsuit probably won’t get you anywhere.

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