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Can I Inherit Miles From a Deceased Family Member?

Dear Tim,

Unfortunately, my dad just passed away. He was a global traveler and has significant balances in several frequent flyer accounts. Seems a shame to waste them. Would you provide some guidance on whether the airlines allow transfer of these miles to those of us who could use them, and if so, how to go about it? Many thanks.


Dear Bob,

One would think, given the emotional sensitivity inherent in such situations, that the airlines would have procedures in place to deal with the orderly transfer of miles in a painless and expeditious manner.

Unfortunately, the reality is otherwise. Many people administering family members’ mileage estates find themselves assaulted by a barrage of fine print, doublespeak, and fees during their time of sorrow. It can be overwhelming.

So let’s get right to the good news: It is indeed possible, in most programs, to have the miles of a deceased frequent flyer program member transferred to a surviving family member.

But as with most good news, there’s a caveat. It won’t happen automatically. There will be paperwork, time spent on the phone, and out-of-pocket fees. And in fact, the investment may not be worth the time and expense if the number of miles at stake is small.

The fine print

Before addressing the specific procedure for transferring the miles, let’s consider the airlines’ official rules governing the inheritance of miles, as that’s what most consumers first encounter when they begin the process. The policy of American, the world’s largest carrier, is typical. Here’s what the airline has to say concerning the miles of deceased program members:

“Mileage credit is not transferable and may not be combined among AAdvantage members, their estates, successors, and assigns. Neither accrued mileage nor award tickets are transferable by the member (i) upon death, (ii) as part of a domestic relations matter, or (iii) otherwise by operation of law.”

If you were to stop reading at this point—and many do—you’d be left assuming the worst. But having shut the door, American then proceeds to open it just a crack with the following statement: “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.”

As we’ll see below, what American says it may do “in its sole discretion” is in fact what it routinely does in practice. And most other airlines do the same.

How to and how much

So, forget about that fine print buried in the member guide. If you’ve already tracked down your program’s policy and dutifully read the legalese, banish any lingering memory of that self-contradictory information. If you haven’t delved into the transfer terms and conditions, don’t.

Because notwithstanding any verbiage to the contrary, airlines almost universally honor requests to transfer miles, provided certain conditions are fulfilled.

What you need to get the transfer process underway is simple—the phone number for the program’s customer-service center. Got it? Good. Next, dial the number and ask two questions:

  1. What is the procedure for transferring miles from my deceased relative’s account?
  2. How much will the transfer cost?

In response to the first question, the customer-service rep will tell you what documentation is required—a will, death certificate, etc.—and where to send it.

And in response to the second question, you’ll be quoted a price for making the transfer, typically between $50 and $75, depending on the airline.

From there, it’s a matter of rounding up the documentation, writing a check, and sending the package to the address specified by the airline. You’re done.

Should you claim miles?

Having established that such transfers are possible, we should pause and ask whether they are desirable. The answer is that transferring miles is not always the right choice because the fees charged for transfers can lead consumers to overpay for miles.

If, for example, the account only contains 1,000 miles and the airline insists on charging $50 to move them to another account, the transaction amounts to paying five cents per mile. It would be very difficult to extract that much value from the miles when they are redeemed, so this deal looks questionable. Factor in the time and energy needed to administer the transfer, and the deal looks even worse.

Lastly, apropos of the transfer fee, it’s worth bearing in mind that there may be room for negotiation. For example, the transfer fee might be adjusted or waived in the case of a low-mileage account. While the terms and conditions were drafted by lawyers, the actual transactions are handled by frontline customer-service agents and supervisors. And they’re human, too.

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