What should you do with the points and miles earned by a family member who has died? I’ve avoided writing on this topic for over three years (some of you know my father died in a small plane crash in 2016), but as various legal issues have been resolved, the timing is now more appropriate.
Dad was a fastidious man when it came to his finances and taxes. His filing cabinet contained a copy of every tax return dating back to his first summer job in 1963, and there was a single red folder with a copy of his trust. Everything was accounted for in great detail. Everything except his frequent flyer miles.
My dad avoided credit cards for most of his life and didn’t really consider their potential until he saw the success I was having as a budding travel blogger in 2007. He avoided all the extreme strategies such as churning and manufactured spending but did become an ardent fan of his Chase Sapphire Preferred card and their customer service team. Even so he avoided redeeming miles because of the hassle of finding award space.
He died with over a million points, including 500,000 Ultimate Rewards points and additional six-figure balances with Hyatt, British Airways, and American Airlines. But here’s the thing about loyalty programs: You don’t own your miles, and in most cases you can’t leave them to your heirs. Scott McCartney with The Wall Street Journal just wrote on article on this very topic, and there was an opinion piece by Leslie Berlin in The New York Times in which she discussed hacking her mother’s phone — something that will probably become relevant in this situation.
I’m writing this article because if you’re anything like me, you know the value of miles and points but probably have family without clear plans on how to handle them when they’re gone. There are plans for the bank accounts, the house, the precious heirlooms. If they are savvy enough to have a plan for their digital assets, they are still unlikely to think about their loyalty programs.
Here is the action plan I took to secure the value of my dad’s points before they were reclaimed by the banks and hotels and airlines. None of this advice aligns with the programs’ terms and conditions. I recommend you check out this guide from The Points Guy if you want more information on the “official” policies. But these tactics have worked for me and may be simpler than going the formal route.
Tell No One
Most programs lay claim to the points in your account. If you tell them your family member has died, they will close the account and take the points in it. A handful are changing to be more understanding and might allow a transfer. There might be a fee. Some will require onerous paperwork. Mr. McCartney notes that Delta will grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis if you get a waiver from a vice president.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
I just don’t think these policies are improving fast enough to be worth pursuing. If your family member has a small balance (under 20,000 points or miles) then it’s probably just easier to discard it. If it’s a larger balance, redeem it by following the recommendations that follow. If you do want to pursue an above-board strategy, avoid giving any specifics about who died and what their account number is when you call for more information.
Consolidate and Transfer
So we left everything exactly where it was. Almost everything.
Despite what you may think, the airlines and hotels do not have the closest connections with the banks who co-issue their credit cards. One person in the WSJ article was worried that canceling a Delta credit card issued by American Express might tip off Delta. I don’t think so. If the points are already with an airline or hotel then they can probably stay there as long as you need them until they expire or are redeemed. Banks are another matter.
I was concerned about the Ultimate Rewards points. Chase would definitely rescind those once the Sapphire Preferred card was closed, and we’d have to close the credit card account eventually. I decided to move them to United MileagePlus since they were (at the time) the most valuable transfer partner. Singapore Airlines is not bad either, though miles do expire at some point with very limited options for extension.
The Wells Fargo Rewards points were simply redeemed for cash and deposited in the trust. There were not enough to book a flight anyway.
Again, all of this was done before we told the banks that he had died. Do not risk losing everything.
Hack into the Computer
All of this advice is predicated on having access to the loyalty program accounts in the first place. Calling the bank to ask for log-in credentials is probably a tip off that something is wrong.
Your family member should hopefully have a list of user names and passwords in an emergency file. Dr. Berlin noted that her mother did have one, but all the information was wrong.
In this world of two-factor authentication, it’s pretty easy to re-set credentials as long as you have access to the deceased’s email or phone. Dr. Berlin was able to swap her mother’s SIM card to a different phone to receive text messages even without the phone’s passcode. My dad’s phone was destroyed in the crash, but we still had email. Despite being a well-paid computer programmer in Silicon Valley, he didn’t secure his computer. He probably figured that if someone has already broken into your house, then putting a password on your OS is not your biggest problem.
We didn’t know the passwords for any of his online accounts except one: GoDaddy. He hosted his email on his own domain. Once we were in it was pretty easy to impersonate him, requesting new passwords, setting up “family” accounts to pool balances, and submitting electronic requests to redeem points for another person.
I also connected all of my dad’s accounts to my AwardWallet account. Dead or not, AwardWallet is a great way to track account balances and store credentials for you and your family members in a single place.
Pool Account Balances and Redeem
With British Airways it was simple: We set up a household account so that whenever any of us redeemed our Avios a portion would be pulled from his account, as well. No formal transfers required. The pro rata math that Executive Club uses is annoying to keep things fair between siblings, but it’s worked okay so far.
My dad had already set up some Guest of Honor reservations with Hyatt shortly before he died, so we let those play out. Case closed. If you’re using Hilton or Marriott, they have pretty generous rules for transferring points online or by phone. Even Hyatt will let you move points between accounts if you fill out a form.
The transfer from Ultimate Rewards to United Airlines was pretty simple. He had already linked his accounts before, so it was a simple matter to move all the points. Once they were deposited we only had to keep the account active so they wouldn’t expire. United has never given me grief when redeeming miles for my family members, so I expected they would be fine if my dad redeemed miles for his family. It helps that we have the same last name, so there are fewer red flags that might suggest he was selling his miles to a third party.
American Airlines was a similar story. The points were already there, so nothing needed to be done. Like with United we were mostly concerned with preventing expiration. American, though, has been more difficult to work with because they require a credit card in the name of the account owner to pay for taxes and fees.
If you ever run into this last problem, a Visa gift card is the simplest solution. I get small gift cards all the time from referral programs and my employer. When I register them, I put them in the name of my dad. For domestic flights you’ll pay under $20 for a round-trip itinerary. If you need more for an international flight, then you can buy a gift card at your local grocery store. Any unused balances are cashed out by reloading my account at Amazon.
I’ve heard reports of other people using their own credit card but swapping out the name with that of the deceased. (In other words, the address and other details are still yours.) I haven’t tested this myself.
Avoid Expiration and Residual Balances
In a way the biggest problem we’ve had is not keeping the miles safe but actually putting them to use. My siblings are not big travelers in any sense. I haven’t been traveling much lately because of a new job, a pregnant wife, and now a new baby boy. Even when I have traveled it’s sometimes made more sense to buy the ticket or to redeem my own points. (Example: I’ve redeemed a fair number of Alaska miles lately. Too bad my dad didn’t have any of those.)
Most points and miles expire in 18 to 24 months, and it’s now been over 36, so do the math. From time to time I’ve had to take measures to extend their validity.
Redeeming miles will renew the expiration date for nearly all programs. I use six-month warnings from AwardWallet to remind my brother and sister that they have these points available and should use them. If that fails, then I move to more extraordinary measures.
Or not so extraordinary. Online shopping portals are your friend. I am not very good at remembering to use these but will make an effort if I need to. I just bought an entire nursery suite from Crate & Barrel. Hello, American AAdvantage Shopping! Even 1 extra mile earned will extend the balance for another 18 months. In an extreme case you can buy miles or redeem them for a magazine subscription, but these are more costly.
I also use these shopping portals to earn enough miles for a round number to book an award. 20,000 miles isn’t going to do much good when most domestic awards cost 25,000 miles. A few online purchases will take care of that.
In my view it’s cruel for loyalty programs to steal your family member’s points when they die or create unreasonable transfer fees and policies in order to hold onto them. Haggling with a customer service rep — the same person who might rebook your canceled flight on a new itinerary with two overnight connections — doesn’t sound promising.
I’ve simply found that working under the radar as I’ve described is easier and preserves more of their value. Don’t lose what your family member spent so much time and effort earning. A cautious, patient approach could help you and your fellow heirs preserve tens of thousands of dollars in unredeemed rewards.