When spouse dies, who gets the cash-back rewards?

Card issuers have different ways of handling deaths of accountholders


Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I was an authorized user on my deceased husband's credit card. Am I entitled to the $300 in cash rewards accumulated? – Denise

Answer Dear Denise,
First, I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure this is one of many items you are having to take care of following your husband’s death.

It would be nice if there were a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. But the correct answer is that it depends, but probably yes. The precise answer depends on the terms and conditions of the cardholder agreement from the bank that issued the card. 

There are really two different questions here. The first is, are you entitled to the rewards because you are an authorized user on your husband’s card? In most cases, no. It depends on the card issuer, but most don’t allow authorized users to redeem rewards. An authorized user can make charges on an account, but the primary cardholder is the person responsible for paying them off – and usually is the one entitled to the rewards.

So the second question is, are you entitled to the rewards because you are the surviving spouse? That answer is going to depend on a couple different factors. Usually, spouses tend to inherit possessions of those who passed away, unless there is a will that directs otherwise. However, some credit card agreements specify that accounts are nontransferable, even when the account holder has died. 

In practice, it sounds as though you could probably log onto your husband’s account and request the cash reward. But if you’re not entitled to the rewards, that could cause problems. Unlike frequent flier or hotel rewards points, cash back rewards are usually deposited as a statement credit in the primary cardholder's account, or issued via check to the account holder’s name.

The proper way to handle it would be to contact the card company and explain the situation. Card issuers are often reluctant to deprive a grieving spouse of earned rewards. Even if their policy says rewards are non-transferrable, they may make an exception if you talk to them. They might be able to issue the cash reward to your husband’s estate or perhaps transfer the account to you. You might have to provide a death certificate and other documentation. 

Karin Prangley, an attorney in charge of trusts and estates advisory services for the Chicago office of Brown Brothers Harriman Trust Co., warns not to transfer the account if it also has huge debts.

“If the account and the rewards are transferred, the transferee would become responsible for any existing balance on the account,” she says. “If the balance on the deceased cardholder’s account exceeds the value of his/her reward points, it may not make financial sense to transfer the account.” 

For instance, it’s not worth assuming thousands of dollars in card debt for the purpose of being able to access $300.

Prangley says it is also important to review the will, to ensure that reward points or miles have not been given to a specific person. 

This is a long way of answering your question. Giving a straight answer is difficult, because card companies handle account holders’ deaths and rewards in different ways, and it is not clear what your husband’s will sets out.

I would guess that in the end, you would be able to claim the cash rewards he accumulated during his life with you.

See related: Cashing in reward points after death, Some frequent flier miles may be inherited, Authorized users may sometimes gain late cardholder's rewards 

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Published: July 12, 2016

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Updated: 10-26-2016

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