The first thing that pops into most minds when starting estate planning or a divorce is “Who gets the house, car, bank account, 401(k), dog, etc.” But not all the valuable assets in an estate are so obvious. Case in point, frequent flyer miles.
The Hidden Value For Your Beneficiaries
The value of frequent flyer miles can add up quickly. In a recent New York Times article, a Russian airline passenger lost his 400,000 Aeroflot miles after the airline discovered that the passenger had engaged in an elaborate “cat-swap” scheme to smuggle his 22-pound cat into the passenger compartment of an Aeroflot flight. Aeroflot limits carry-on cats to a willowy 17 pounds. After discovering the violation, Aeroflot kicked the passenger out of its frequent flyer program and stripped him of his miles. While the story doesn’t have anything to do with estate planning, the point is the value of the miles. According to the Aeroflot’s award chart, the miles lost by the passenger adds up to about three round trip tickets between Moscow and New York. In fact, a 2018 estimate by the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys puts the average value of a frequent flyer mile at 1.5 cents. While that doesn’t sound like much, it can add up to thousands of dollars if you travel frequently.
The Contract Controls Disposition of your Frequent Flyer Miles…Except When It Doesn’t
Unlike many other valuable assets you may own, frequent flyer miles are governed by contractual agreements. The ability to transfer the frequent flyer miles depends on whether the contract allows a transfer. Most do not. Most contracts explicitly state the miles are the property of the airline and are non-transferable. However, all is not lost. Many airlines haven unofficial policies or common practices allowing transfer of miles despite contractual prohibitions. For example, the terms of Alaska Airline’s Mileage PlanTM prohibits transfer of miles, but Alaska Airlines has frequently been known to allow transfer of a deceased member’s miles to a family member. Many other airlines allow transfer of assets at the sole discretion of the airline, leaving them in the pilot’s seat.
In Case of Divorce
You’re alive, but you’re getting divorced. What about your spouse’s airline miles? The same rules and restrictions that apply to transfers at death will likely apply to transfers in the event of divorce. But always check your contract. Most airlines disallow transfer in the event of divorce, but other airlines may allow the transfer at their sole discretion. If the airline agrees to the transfer, they will likely require you to present a divorce decree before splitting miles into separate accounts for each spouse. If the airline will not transfer the miles, you could agree to take an allocation of cash from your spouse instead. Sometimes an airline will assign a cash value to the miles, but if not, the value can be determined in negotiations with your spouse before an agreement on the division of property is finalized. If you are getting divorced and your spouse has a significant number of miles, make sure to address this issue with your family law attorney early in the process.
The Bottom Line
If you try to transfer your frequent flyer miles under your Last Will, it may or may not work. Unless your airline contract specifically allows a transfer at death or allows you to name a beneficiary, you’re at the mercy of the airline. Even so, if you are a frequent traveler and accumulate a lot of miles, you can still address your frequent flyer miles in your Will. If the airline ultimately refuses to honor the terms of your Will, you can be prepared for that contingency. An estate planning attorney can help you draft language in your Will that provides the intended beneficiary of your frequent flyer miles with an alternative gift in case the miles are not transferred. At the very least, the bequest of frequent miles under your Last Will is a reminder to the Executor of your estate to investigate this often-over-looked asset, rather than let it simply disappear. Other options for transferring your miles may also be available, depending on your frequent flyer program. For example, some airlines have pooling programs that allow family members to be added to a frequent flyer’s account for the purpose of sharing miles, even after death.
- If you fly a lot, consider addressing frequent flyer Miles in your Last Will. If you are getting divorced, address this asset with your family law attorney early in the process.
- Check the terms and conditions of your frequent flyer program. Programs vary considerably and are subject to change.
- Most frequent flyer programs prohibit transfer at death, but it can’t hurt to try. Call the airline and see if they have an unofficial policy or a common practice.
- If a bequest of your frequent flyer miles fails, have a back-up plan. Your Last Will can be drafted to provide for an alternative distribution, for example a cash bequest equal in value to the value of the miles.
- Investigate other options for transferring frequent flyer miles at death, such as pooling programs that allow family members on your account to use your miles.
If you have any questions regarding the transfer of your frequent flyer miles, or any other general questions regarding Estate Planning or Family Law, please reach out to any of our attorneys, or reach us at email@example.com.