Some unique assets are relegated to a small group of people—airplanes, trains, yachts. But what about a potentially overlooked asset that many of us have—frequent-flyer miles? A recent post on the Elder Law and Disability Rights Section Listserv got me thinking, What happens to frequent-flyer miles when clients die? Can they bequeath them in a will? Transfer them to another’s account?
The answer depends on the individual airline and how it handles the frequent-flyer mile balance of someone who has died. Several helpful online articles break down the policies of the major U.S. airlines, but for the most part you are subject to the contractual terms of the rewards or loyalty program (and remember that those terms are subject to change). A number of the frequent-flyer mile programs specifically state that you cannot bequeath or otherwise transfer miles at death. Delta’s SkyMiles program provides that miles are not the member’s property and cannot be transferred under any circumstances, including death. But some airlines allow a transfer for a fee or even fee-free with appropriate documentation. For example, rules for United Airlines’ MileagePlus program provide that “[i]n the event of the death or divorce of a Member, United may, in its sole discretion, credit all or a portion of such Member’s accrued mileage to authorized persons upon receipt of documentation satisfactory to United and payment of applicable fees.” Practical accounts suggest that there is discretion in how the airlines handle transfers of miles, and it is probably worth a call to an airline’s customer service department to see what it can offer.
Depending on the airline, the documentation needed might be a death certificate, affidavit, or even a provision in the deceased member’s will. Chef Anthony Bourdain’s will included a provision leaving his accumulated frequent-flyer miles to his wife, asking her to “dispose of in accordance to what she believes to be his wishes.”
One informal channel for ensuring your loved one has access to your miles is to provide your frequent-flyer mile account and log-in information. Since redeeming tickets for people other than yourself typically isn’t a problem in most loyalty programs, this just may be the easiest way to ensure that those you would like to use your miles after you’re gone are able to do so.
While they may not be the first asset that comes to mind during estate planning, or even covered in a question on the typical estate planning questionnaire, frequent-flyer miles might be a valuable asset your client doesn’t want to overlook.