Frequent flier miles may live on after death

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,
My husband passed away. He does not have a will. In most places, he put me as his beneficiary, so everything transferred easily. We never thought of listing a beneficiary with airline miles. He has a pretty big number of MileagePlus miles with United. We both used to log in to his accounts, as he trusted me and gave me access as well. So I can still access it. What can I do to have the miles saved for use by me and my kids? – Ash

Answer Dear Ash,
I’m sorry for your loss. Losing a loved one is a traumatic and overwhelming experience, and I’m sure that the disposition of frequent flier miles is far down on the list of your concerns.

However, as you mention, there is some value in frequent filer miles, especially if your husband had a lot them accrued over years of flights and purchases on an airline credit card. People often do overlook mileage accounts, because they are less obvious than other assets such as bank accounts and retirement savings. 

I could find no written United policy on what happens to frequent flier miles upon death, other than the usual boilerplate program rules that say miles are not transferrable “except as expressly permitted by United in writing or under programs fully authorized and/or sponsored by United.”

But I talked to United spokeswoman Mary Clark, who clarified that the airline does, indeed, have a process for transferring the miles of deceased MileagePlus members to their beneficiaries. She said there is a $150 fee, and you need to provide some documentation such as a death certificate and an affidavit. Clark offered to have a United representative contact you to walk you through that process, if you would like. 

Of course, another option would be to simply leave matters as they are, since you still have access to your husband’s account and can just go ahead booking flights online. That would relieve you of the cost and hassle of having the miles formally transferred.

I asked Clark about that possibility. She said, “There’s nothing to prevent her from using the account if he gave her the ability to do that.” 

So it’s your choice. I would say that if the value of the miles is worth significantly more to you than $150, then it might be cleaner to have the miles transferred. Imagine a scenario in which for some reason you need to call the airline to change a ticket or book a complicated route that cannot be done online. Would United’s call-center employee ask to speak with your husband about any bookings, since his name is on the account?

In addition, if you have miles in your account, and you combine his miles with your miles, you will have more flexibility in booking trips from just one account. 

Whichever route you choose, it appears you should be able to use your husband’s miles. However, do be aware that if there is no activity in a United frequent flier account for 18 months, the airline can wipe out all the miles, so be sure to use at least some of them before then, or have other account activity.

Also, it is worth noting that other airlines have policies that explicitly state that miles cannot be transferred upon death. However, many will unofficially work with grieving widows and widowers to transfer the miles to the surviving spouse’s accounts. So it doesn’t hurt to ask.

See related: Some frequent flier miles, reward points can be inherited, Authorized users can sometimes gain late cardholder's rewards, Can you claim frequent flier miles after the death of a parent?

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Updated: 03-25-2019