The inevitability of death prompted the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus to say, “It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned, we men live in a city without walls.” The unexpected end of one’s life or marriage raises a number of questions and for frequent travelers, one of those important questions is, what will happen to my miles?
Dividing up miles and points at the end of a life or the end of a marriage isn’t straightforward, partially because loyalty currency isn’t identical to cash currency. Miles and points don’t have a fixed value and the programs frequently include a clause in their terms and conditions stating that the programs themselves, not the members, own the currency. You may have a million miles in your account, but if you don’t actually own them, you aren’t automatically entitled to give them to anyone you wish–or share half of them with an ex-spouse. While divvying up miles in a divorce or at the end of a life seems like it should be simple, there are some complications. We’ll look at the programs’ different policies and let you know what you can do to prepare for that final fight or flight.
DIVORCE AND YOUR MILES
Marital assets include all property acquired during a marriage. If miles and points are earned by a spouse while a couple is married, they are subject to becoming part of the divorce settlement. Although many couples reach a divorce agreement where loyalty program points aren’t considered, miles and points are sometimes included in the settlement, especially when there are hundreds of thousands of miles or points at stake.
One way to handle miles and points, especially when the split is relatively amicable, is to keep them in their original location with the spouse that earned them, but come up with an agreement about how they will be used. If there are 200,000 hotel points in dispute, for example, 100,000 hotel points can be allocated for each spouse to use. The owner of the account can then redeem points for the ex-spouse. In order for this method to work, both parties need to be willing to communicate and cooperate with each other, which isn’t always feasible after a divorce, but it is possible and many members have successfully split up their mileage and point assets this way. Or a couple may decide to use the miles in a way that will benefit them both equally, such as setting aside the miles for their children to use.
Bonnie Raynes, Esquire, is a family law attorney in the Philadelphia area who also writes the blog, Frugal Travel Lawyer (frugaltravellawyer.com). She helps couples reach divorce settlements without going to court. When it comes to reaching an agreement, she says you have to identify all the assets, value and divide. Some assets, for example a car, you don’t split in half. One spouse gets the car while the other receives another asset of comparable value. She considers frequent flyer miles as just another asset to divide in divorce.
While many programs allow their currency to be transferred, the transfer fees are high and some programs require members to submit a court decree before they will transfer them in the case of divorce. Some programs, such as Choice Privileges, explicitly state that members “may not transfer your points to anyone or by any means, including through a will or divorce decree.”
Raynes says the big issue with frequent flyer miles is how do you value them? It’s easy to look into a member’s account and see what’s there, but what are they worth and how do you divide them? With her clients, she focuses on what you can do with miles and points, not how much each mile is individually worth. In one case she worked on, the husband had been a road warrior for five years of the marriage and had earned 475,000 US Airways Dividend Miles. He had originally planned to use the miles for two big trips for his family. His wife knew about the miles and really wanted to take the kids somewhere, so he agreed she could have up to 300,000 miles to use over three years. The wife was responsible for all the booking fees and he had to make sure the miles wouldn’t expire. After three years, any miles she didn’t use of the 300,000 he could keep. He also had 120,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points. The husband was able to transfer half of those points into the wife’s account while the couple was still living together at the same address. The husband didn’t think his wife would use the whole 300,000 miles and he was right–she only ended up using around 175,000 miles over the three years.
Another case Raynes helped settle involving miles had more to do with a custody agreement. In this case, the couple had one child, a 12-year-old son, and the wife wanted to move to Fort Lauderdale from the Philadelphia area. The husband had 600,000 US Airways miles, six roundtrip Southwest tickets and 400,000 American AAdvantage miles, and wanted to continue to see his son and have him fly out to visit once a month. The couple agreed that the husband was allowed to keep all of the miles, but he was responsible for flying the son back and forth every month with his miles, since the wife was the one who wanted to move.
When the split isn’t amicable, agreements that look good on paper don’t always work out as easily as planned. Frequent flyer Kent Moffat from Portland, Ore. discovered only after his divorce was complete that agreeing to book award tickets for his ex-wife wasn’t the best solution. When Moffat divorced his wife in 2005, he had 240,000 miles on United and 60,000 miles on American. Because of the prohibitive airline transfer fees, as part of the divorce agreement, he kept the miles in his name but was required to redeem miles for tickets for his wife within 24 hours upon her request. He said he could have opted to give his ex a cash payment, but “felt that the value assigned to the miles in the opposing lawyer’s proposal was unreasonable.”
Looking back, however, he realizes that the solution they agreed upon had several flaws. First of all, the settlement didn’t take into account the fact that miles expire within 18 months to two years without any account activity. He says the miles in his account almost expired twice and he had to take action to prevent expiration in order to avoid being in contempt of the divorce agreement. Another clause stated that if he used any of the miles for his own travel, he would be required to “pay for the comparable number of tickets.” He said that since the value of miles can vary widely depending on circumstances, it could be very difficult to determine the equivalent value of a purchased airline ticket.
Six and a half years after the divorce, his wife has only requested one domestic ticket and he’s still on the hook to manage the miles. If he had to do it over again, he says he would have pushed to have his ex pay the airline the required mileage transfer fees to avoid further complications. For unfriendly divorces like his, “having to hold miles in trust and negotiate the potential problems, just creates another source of tension.” He recommends that you negotiate an agreement that permanently cuts the cord to put the whole issue behind you.
Another way to handle loyalty currency is to let one person keep the miles or points and come up with a fair market value of what they are worth and credit the other spouse with the money. For example, if one spouse has 500,000 American AAdvantage miles, they could give those miles a value of $10,000 ($.02 per mile). The miles will stay with their original owner and the other spouse will receive $10,000 of other assets in the settlement. The problem with this solution is that miles are notoriously hard to pin down with a monetary value, as mentioned. But if both parties can agree to a value, then this may be easier (and cheaper) than contacting the airlines and hotels and requesting miles and points to be transferred and offers a clean break for both parties.
DEATH AND YOUR MILES
According to the terms and conditions of many frequent flyer programs, airlines are not required to transfer miles to successors when a member dies, but requests are regularly honored and airlines are more lenient about transferring miles after a death than they are for a divorce.
In general, you will need to contact the airline or hotel and provide a copy of the death certificate and possibly the will. According to the members we spoke to, the programs are generally willing to accommodate transfer requests. Some charge a fee while others will process the request at no charge.
When her boss died, along with closing the office, Milepoint member Ella was asked to transfer his miles into his wife’s accounts. She said that she was able to transfer about 40,000 Continental OnePass miles and 30,000 Marriott and Hilton points fairly easily. She sent a signed letter from the executor, a copy of a certified death certificate and the account numbers of both her deceased boss and his wife. She was also able to cancel a couple of Continental flights using the same documents. One of the letters for the ticket refund had to be notarized because it was for a refund into his account and had to be done by the executor. The letters for the miles and points did not need to be notarized. She said the entire process was complete in about 30 days and she was able to scan the documents and attach them to an email–paper copies were not required. And there was no fee involved with Marriott, Continental or Hilton.
In most cases, a will that clearly states who you would like to receive your miles isn’t necessary, but it can’t hurt. Milepoint member LizzyDragon84 says, “I don’t think it would be very useful to include miles/points in legal documents since the points are the property of the program, not the person. In some programs, the points will die with the person. But leaving a note with the will with account info wouldn’t be a bad idea in case the points are still usable.”
Sharing your account usernames, passwords and PINs with someone you know and trust is a good idea, even if you are currently in good health. The New Zealand Herald published an article last year about a New Zealand woman, Rachel Acton, who died from a heart attack five days after making an award booking on Qantas for 41,000 points. Her family contacted Qantas and requested the points to be returned to her account, but nobody had her PIN and the airline refused to refund the points, citing their policy that frequent flyer accounts would be automatically terminated upon the death of a member. Her husband was eventually able to get the points back into her account, but only by hacking into her account by using her email and pretending to have lost her PIN so he could reset it and cancel the award–something no one should have to worry about after recently losing a loved one.
Keeping the Miles Alive
Once miles are transferred into your account, take note of the expiration date. You may want to make a small purchase at the mileage mall to reset the expiration date as transferring miles may not automatically extend the date from when the original owner earned or redeemed miles. With most programs, members will need to earn or redeem every 12-24 months to keep their account active.
Not Dead Yet
Because of the hassle and potential fees involved with transferring miles and points, some members choose to keep the miles and points in the account of the deceased member and redeem them when needed. If the programs aren’t notified of the death, then they won’t close the account or delete the miles and points in it. While transferring currency isn’t always easy, programs allow members to redeem miles or points for an award for someone else at no cost. If you have the deceased member’s username and password, you can use miles from their account and book a ticket or hotel stay for yourself or another family member. Be aware that this technique is against the programs’ terms and conditions, but many members have successfully chosen this route.
Donate the Miles
If there are only a few thousand miles left in an account of the deceased, you may want to consider donating them to charity. Most programs partner with charitable organizations and you can log in and donate the miles online. The miles and points will be used to help others in need by either providing transportation or by being converted into a cash donation to be given to the organization. Along the same lines, you could consider giving award flights to a local charity (they give you the name of the person and you redeem an award for them) or you could donate your miles through Kulacauses.com.
We searched the terms and conditions of the programs to find the official policies concerning miles and points upon a death or divorce. We also contacted the programs directly and found that some programs may transfer miles and points, even when their stated policy says they won’t, so it’s worthwhile to call.
Aeroplan membership terminates upon death or personal bankruptcy of the member. Current Aeroplan practices allow for the spouse of a deceased Aeroplan Member or, if there is no spouse, the surviving residual heir(s) of the estate, to transfer the outstanding mile balance to his / her Aeroplan account at a cost of $0.01/mile plus a $30 processing fee (plus taxes). After a comprehensive review and analysis, Aeroplan has introduced a second option which allows the spouse of a deceased Aeroplan Member or, if there is no spouse, the surviving residual heir(s) of the estate,to redeem the outstanding balance of the deceased Member’s account for a period of 12 months from the declaration of death for a processing fee of $30 (plus taxes).
Miles that have not been redeemed within 12 months from the declaration of death will be forfeited and become unavailable for use (redemption, consolidation, conversion, exchange or transfer). If the account miles have expired at time of declaration, this option is not available.
A copy of the death certificate and will are required.
In the case of the death of a spouse, credits may be transferred into the surviving spouse’s or beneficiary’s account. Proper documentation may be required to accommodate this request.
In the case of a divorce, credits are not transferred. All credits belong to the account holder as they were the passenger during travel, unless ordered by a court.
Alaska Mileage Plan
Alaska Mileage Plan does not publish their policy in the terms and conditions. Komal Ram, Manager, Loyalty Marketing Air Partners at Alaska Airlines, said “Our policy relating to miles after death is: We request a copy of the death certificate be sent to our Customer Care department and once we have that we transfer the mileage into the surviving spouse’s account as a memorial benefit. If there is a beneficiary then we ask for a copy of the death certificate and a copy of the portion of the will that states the beneficiary name. Then we transfer the mileage into their account. Our policy relating to miles relating to divorces is: If the divorce allows for miles to be shared, our policy is to have the respective customer transfer mileage online. There’s a fee to the customer who transfers miles from their account.”
Their official policy states: 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.
Members report that American AAdvantage will transfer miles to another member’s account upon death but a $50 administrative fee may apply.
Upon the death of a Member, the Administrator or Executor of the Member’s Estate may designate one or more other Members to receive a transfer of the mileage credit in the deceased Member’s account. Only whole number amounts of miles may be transferred. The required form and other instructions for requesting a transfer of mileage under these circumstances is available on http://www.delta.com/skymilesaffidavit
When requesting a transfer due to death we require a copy of the Death certificate to transfer the miles to a surviving spouse. They can also be transferred to a friend or family member. If that is the case, we will also require documentation from the executor of the estate. This can be sent to us as an attachment to an email. You can also fax or mail your documentation with the member’s EarlyReturns number as well as the name and number of the account the miles are to be transferred to.
In the case of divorce, you may transfer miles between accounts. The cost to transfer is $10 per 1,000 miles transferred. Transfers cannot be reversed.
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.
In other words, there is no way to transfer TrueBlue points except by paying the standard transfer.
When we asked for further clarification, a customer service agent told us, “Any member can transfer points from one account to another. This is completed through the donor’s account. Simply sign in to your account and click on ‘Transfer points’ located on the toolbar (in the middle of the page) or click on ‘Buy or transfer points’ located on the left side of the page. There is a fee of $0.0125 per point that is transferred. This fee allows our business partner to manage each transfer made as we must be accountable also.
An easy way to avoid this type of fee would be to simply book travel out of the account that houses the points for the intended person. Regrettably, there is no other way to transfer points from one account to another in case of death or divorce.”
Southwest Rapid Rewards
Points may not be transferred from one Member’s account to another, or to a Member’s estate or as part of a settlement.
When we contacted the program, a customer service agent of Southwest Rapid Rewards responded, “Please understand that we endeavor to be uniform in not transferring points from one Rapid Rewards account to another. We have been unable to make this exception partly because of the administrative challenge of accommodating transfer requests (since our program is uniquely designed to reward individual and separate participation) and partly because of the number of similar requests we receive. Although we are unable to transfer points to another account, please know that points may be redeemed for another traveler.”
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.
We got in touch with United and they confirmed that this is the policy.
US Airways Dividend Miles
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 12 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.
In the case of a divorce, submit the legal documentation that addresses the distribution of miles and states the exact number of miles to be transferred. If this issue is not addressed in the original divorce papers, the individuals may obtain a legal document stating the exact number of miles to transfer, both parties must sign it and have it notarized. These documents can be faxed to (480) 693-8024 including cover letter with the Dividend Miles account numbers.
Best Western Rewards
From a customer service agent: “Best Western Rewards accounts are set up for individuals only, mainly for the reason of the problems surrounding divorce, the account balance on an account is the sole possession of the member whose name is on the account. In the event of a death we have a form which would allow you to change the name on the account to your own, pending your providing certain documents. We would then change the name on the account and merge the account to your own, if you already have one set up.”
According to their official policy, members “may not transfer your points to anyone or by any means, including through a will or divorce decree.” When we contacted the program directly, however, we were told that they would transfer points when someone passes away. You would need to create a new account under your name and then fax or mail a copy of the death certificate and account information of the deceased, along with your name and new membership number, to the Choice Service Center. The transfer could take up to 30 days.
Although their policy is not listed in their terms and conditions, Club Carlson does allow points to be transferred in the case of death or divorce. A customer care specialist told us, “In case of death, we require a copy of the death certificate, and then the account number you want the points transferred to. For divorce, points can be gifted from one account to another. The person gifting the points needs to be the one who calls.”
Accrued points do not constitute the property of the Member, and are not transferable in the event of death, divorce or operation of law (except as specifically provided herein).
If you have an HHonors Mutual fund (which was available pre-2004), you can divide the points up equally through the fund.
Hyatt Gold Passport
Hyatt Gold Passport points are for member’s benefit only and are not transferable to another person for any reason including divorce or inheritance. In the case of documented death of a Hyatt Gold Passport member, Hyatt Gold Passport points are transferable to a person sharing the same residential mailing address.
Points are transferable to a legal spouse or domestic partner in the case of documented death of the member. In addition, there is a limited exception for the transfer of Points into the Rewards Account of a legal spouse or domestic partner in order to qualify for a specific Reward. Points are not transferable to another person for any other reason, including divorce or inheritance.
Priority Club Rewards
The terms and conditions of Priority Club Rewards states that members have no ownership interest in accrued points and accrued points do not constitute property of the members. When we asked, however, we were told the points can be transferred when a member dies but not in the case of divorce. “Please allow us this opportunity to inform you that points earned by a deceased member can be transferred the account of an immediate family member. Further, Priority Club Rewards memberships are for individuals, not groups, or corporations. Only one name is allowed on each account. Joint account is not allowed. We strongly suggest that each individual have their own Priority Club account to maximize the program’s benefits. As such, in the event of divorce, the points accumulated will remain on the account where the stays are posted.”
Red Lion Hotels
Red Lion Hotels wants to make updating your membership account as smooth and painless as possible after a death or divorce. In the event that one of these occurs our members can contact our 24-hour member service center making them aware of this change and then provide us with a copy of a death certificate. Once received this change is immediate and the member will be contacted.
Starwood Preferred Guest
4.1.b. Death. In the event of death, Starwood may, in its sole discretion, allow unredeemed Starpoints to be transferred to a family member or a friend who is an active SPG Member upon Starwood’s receipt and review of all requested documentation and communications. Elite membership status and the related benefits will not transfer to the recipient of the Starpoints.
4.1.c. Divorce. In the event of an adjudicated divorce settlement, Starwood may, in its sole discretion, allow unredeemed Starpoints to be transferred from one SPG Member’s account to another SPG Member’s account upon Starwood’s receipt and review of all requested documentation and communications including, without limitation, legal documents directing such a transfer of Starpoints. Elite membership status and the related benefits will not transfer to the recipient of the Starpoints.
According to their official policy, “Wyndham Rewards points in a Member’s account do not constitute property of the Member, have no cash value, and cannot be transferred during or after the Member’s life, by operation of law or otherwise.” However, when we contacted the service center, Operations Supervisor Mark Fullerton told us that “With regards to a divorce, yes, we are able to apply half of the points from one account to an ex-spouse’s account. I have personally overseen one instance of this. Generally a member must escalate the concern to our Support staff as it is a manual process. In the unfortunate event of a death of a member, the individual who has the power of attorney is able to change the name on the deceased member’s account.”
Like all things in life, you can’t take your miles with you so it’s best to make a mileage plan for those you love. And if you end up with the short end of the mileage stick in a divorce settlement, remember that points and miles won’t hold their value forever so it’s better to spend them while you can–and even better to spend them while you still love your spouse. But everyone is different. Martin Blinder, MD, has this mileage philosophy, “In the event of death I plan to take my miles with me. Angels wings are fine for short trips between adjacent clouds but for transcelestial journeys, I will need those miles.”