For those who travel often, airline frequent flyer programs can be quite valuable. Accumulated miles from time spent in the air can be prudently utilized by consumers for deeply discounted or free flights. That can be quite beneficial. But have you ever considered what happens to those accumulated frequent flyer miles if the consumer dies before having used them all? Are there any planning steps a consumer can take to ensure their loved ones can make use of the consumer’s miles after they pass away?
The answer to that question is “it depends.” Frequent flyer programs are simply one of many creations of the airline industry intended to attract and retain customers. As such, they are similar to any other sort of restaurant or retail coupon or other discount program. While there may be some commonalities among the various frequent flyer programs offered by various airlines, there will inevitably be some differences in the “fine print” of each program.
An article posted on the website smartertravel.com provided a summary of the different frequent flyer program specifics for six major airlines: Air Canada, American, Continental, JetBlue, United and US Airways. See http://www.smartertravel.com/travel-advice/can-inherit-frequent-flyer-miles.html?id=3516655. The author of that article investigated the policies among those airlines and discovered that only American, Continental and US Airways specifically permit miles to pass to a customer’s beneficiaries after death.
US Airways seems to have gone the farthest in actually envisioning a procedure for transferring miles to a beneficiary, explaining that transfer of miles may occur “after production of appropriate documentation such as a death certificate and proof of beneficiary within 6 months of the member's passing.” Continental alludes to the possibility of a transfer but provides no specifics, while American states first that miles do not constitute the property of a member and are not “transferable” by a member, yet continues to provide that American nonetheless has the discretion to honor a member’s wishes stated in a Will or otherwise included in a divorce decree.
AirCanada similarly states that members have no right to assign or transfer miles, yet continues on to suggest that Air Canada might nonetheless consent to a transfer.
In contrast, both JetBlue and United flatly declare that their reward program miles are personal and completely unassignable. The article author also explains that AirTran, Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, and Southwest do not include any provisions in their program policies whatsoever on the question of post-mortem transferability of miles.
So, what to do? First, if it is important to you that your loved ones are able to benefit from your hard-earned miles, then you should choose accordingly among the airlines that allow for that possibility when booking your travel. Apart from that, there is no downside to including language in your Will to document your preferences, although such a provision would clearly be intended for an airline to recognize, and not necessarily enforceable by a probate court.
Please call us at 860-769-6938 if you have any questions about the issues presented above or if you care to discuss any other planning issues with us.