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What Happens to Your Airline Miles When You Die?

What would you do if you knew you had a potentially valuable asset that could vanish upon your death?

Many airlines say “officially” that frequent flier miles are not “your” property and cannot be willed to your heirs upon your death.

Frequent flier miles is a big problem, because people accumulate lots of miles that they don’t use, and the policies of the different airlines are different. Airline miles are constantly changing the policy, and sometimes it depends upon who you talk to and what you can get done.

Frequent flier miles pose a bigger problem for estates than other loyalty programs because serious travelers can accumulate many hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of miles.

But can you pass your miles on? That depends. The secret is: Don’t take an airline’s written policy at face value. The terms of service often say one thing while the carrier’s practices offer another path.

Get the Paperwork

For example, American Airlines’ AAdvantage program terms and conditions say, “Neither accrued mileage, nor award tickets, nor upgrades are transferable by the member upon death.” That seems pretty clear.

But if you read on, you’ll see that the airline reserves the right to decide, “in its sole discretion,” to pass your miles on to beneficiaries “upon receipt of documentation satisfactory to American Airlines and upon payment of any applicable fees.”

Similarly, United has a procedure for transferring miles — but you have to know to ask about it. The MileagePlus program rules say mileage may not be transferred, except as “expressly permitted by United.”

United Airline has made “case-by-case exceptions” when members have died. Should your heirs apply for one of those exceptions, they would need to send the death certificate, a signed and notarized affidavit provided by United, and a $150 mileage transfer fee.

Ask Nicely

Smaller carriers don’t always have paperwork ready for heirs to sign, but they might have luck if they just ask nicely.

According to Money Magazine, even if you can’t pass on your miles, you can leave your username and password behind. At Southwest Airlines, for instance, you can’t will your miles to heirs — but the Rapid Rewards program rules say your points will live on in your account 24 months after your last account activity. During that time, if your heirs have your account information, they can go into your account and use the miles, or transfer them for a fee of about 1 cent per mile.

The Takeaway

You simply can’t guarantee that your spouse or kids will get your miles. One of the biggest problems is the airlines change their policies so many times, even if you do everything perfect when you write the will, it might not work anymore.

Still, there’s a good chance your airline will honor your request anyway. The best you can do is add a line to your will that says, “I leave [name of heir] my airline miles.” Advise your children to be polite to the airline customer service reps. Either that or spend down your miles when you’re still alive; now’s the time to enjoy them.

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