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What Happens to Credit Card Rewards When You Die?

by Kevin Mulligan

If you are like me you’ve spent a chunk of your time over the last several years earning big sign up bonuses from credit card companies. I’ve got hundreds of thousands of airline miles, hotel points, and bank rewards like AMEX’s Membership Rewards.

I fully intend to use those miles for a lot of travel sometime in 2015, but what happens to all of those credit card rewards points, miles, and cash back if I died before I used them? Would the associated companies simply close the account and forfeit all of those hard earned rewards? Or can I pass them on as part of my will to my spouse and children?

The answer depends on the credit card company, airline, and hotel program; unfortunately the answers you find are as clear as mud.

credit card miles expiration

Can My Heirs Use My Airline Miles and Credit Card Points?

It can be argued that the airline miles, hotel points, and specific credit card company reward points you hold are financial assets. You swiped your cards and the company gave you the rewards.

In many cases these rewards are worth thousands of dollars. Having 150,000 American Airline miles means you could fly up to 14,000 miles on the oneworld alliance in first class. (Not sure how far that is? You could fly from Chicago to London, followed by Paris, Rome, New York, Los Angeles, and finally back to Chicago.) Those tickets are worth thousands of dollars.

Just because it could be argued that those miles are your financial assets doesn’t make it so. Many of the airlines, hotels, and banks involved have terms and conditions that state your miles and points will be forfeited upon death because the airline technically owns them.

That doesn’t make for a great customer service story, so don’t take the terms and conditions as gospel.

In fact finding a clear policy that is then implemented at the customer service level is quite difficult. Late last year the New York Times tried to do just that. When they found policies that stated you forfeited the miles (as is the case with United and Delta) or spoke to a spokesperson who verified those policies, the customer service representatives didn’t always say the same thing.

Whether or not you’ll actually be able to use or transfer miles and points from a deceased relative just depends on the company, the policy they formally have, and how that policy is enforced at the customer service level. No one at any of these large firms wants a newspaper headline about “Grandma dies and grandson can’t use her millions of airline miles”; it is simply bad PR.

Which Reward Programs Let You Bequeath Airline Miles and Reward Points?

Here are some of the terms and conditions with the key areas bolded:

American Airlines

I’ve copied the terms and conditions from American Airlines’ website, however it should be noted that the New York Times article from last year gave AA high marks for having a clear, consistent policy that allowed miles to be transferred out for no fee. I can’t find that by searching, but I’ll believe the NYT on this one.

Except as otherwise explained below, mileage credit is not transferable and may not be combined among AAdvantage members, their estates, successors and assigns. Accrued mileage credit and award tickets do not constitute property of the member. 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. Mileage credit is transferable between AAdvantage accounts when offered by AA online, with the shareAAmilesSM program. The member must adhere to the rules and limitations of the shareAAmiles program.

Delta

Delta used to let you transfer or use miles from a deceased account, but they changed their policy in early 2013. It made headlines in the USA Today and on travel blogs all over.

Under the SkyMiles Mileage Expiration policy, miles do not expire.? Delta reserves the right to de-activate or close an account under the following circumstances:

  • Fraudulent activity occurs
  • A member requests an account closure
  • A member is deceased
  • A member does not respond to repeated communication attempts regarding the status of his/her account

United Airlines

It seems that the policy wording has changed since the New York Times talked to the spokesperson and customer service. The terms used to have wording on not being able to transfer upon death, but now when you search the terms the word death isn’t even listed. It now reads like “make sure you ask us nicely and we’ll avoid negative PR”:

The accumulation of mileage or certificates and the redemption of awards are subject to specific Program Rules enacted by United. Each member is responsible for reading those materials in order to understand such member’s rights and responsibilities under the Program. No mileage, benefits, certificates or awards earned or granted under the Program may be transferred or assigned except as expressly permitted by United in writing or under programs fully authorized and/or sponsored by United.

Accrued mileage and certificates do not constitute property of the member and are not transferable other than as authorized and/or sponsored by United.

Southwest Airlines

I can’t find the specific policy, but company spokespeople have stated in the past that Rapid Rewards points cannot be transferred after death. However, the account can remain open and heirs may use the miles to book tickets. The account will automatically close after two years of inactivity.

US Airways

Kudos to US Airways for having a clear policy. I find it interesting that both American Airlines and US Airways either clearly state or insinuate that they will transfer miles since the two airlines are merging:

Mileage transferability

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. Mileage may not be transferred to any other person except pursuant to these rules.

JetBlue

The NYT article says a spokesperson stated they don’t have a specific policy and will transfer miles after proper documentation (death certificate, etc.), but this is what the terms and conditions say:

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.

American Express Membership Rewards

I give props to AMEX for having a page dedicated to this issue called “Deceased Account Management.” And they even give you tips on how to avoid losing all of the points by not canceling the card first.

The Membership Rewards® points accumulated by a deceased Cardmember may be reinstated to a new basic account or be redeemed by the estate of the deceased Cardmember.

Please note accrued points in Membership Rewards® will be forfeited immediately upon cancellation of all Cards so please make sure to redeem points before cancelling the account. Depending on the Card, the estate might only be able to redeem points within a certain time frame.

Hilton Hhonors Points

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).

In case of the death of a Member, points in the HHonors Mutual Fund will go to the surviving spouse. In the event of dissolution of marriage, 50% of points in the HHonors Mutual Fund will go to each Member. Both spouses must sign to request dissolution of account. Hilton HHonors Worldwide, L.L.C. may require official documentation evidencing death or dissolution of marriage. Hilton HHonors Worldwide, L.L.C. is not responsible for, and bears no liability for, disagreements or disputes between Members concerning the dissolution of HHonors Mutual Fund accounts. Except as specifically provided herein, neither accrued points nor Certificates are transferable in the event of death, as part of a domestic relations matter or otherwise by operation of law.

What About My Favorite Travel Program?

If your favorite program isn’t listed above — or even if it is! — it never hurts to calmly call customer service to explain your situation. Again, it would be a public relations disaster to have it get out in the news that you don’t let miles or points be passed on to heirs. Imagine the video on the front page of the news outlets with a crying family member who is going off on the company. It just wouldn’t be good.

So stay calm and take note of your emotional state; you’ve just lost a close family member and likely have a ton of emotions running through you. Any time you are requesting something out of the ordinary from customer service it helps to be calm. State your case, ask nicely, and escalate up the chain if you need to.


Published or updated June 15, 2013.
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