Loyalty program rules aren’t ironclad

Roberta Bekerman persuaded Delta Air Lines that she was entitled to inherit her deceased husband’s frequent-flier miles. Even though many programs stipulate that miles and points can’t be transferred after a death or divorce, exceptions can be made if a person makes a good case.

Along with all the other paperwork that comes with being newly widowed, Roberta Bekerman had to persuade Delta Air Lines that she was entitled to inherit her husband’s frequent-flier miles.

The company’s policy says that its SkyMiles, as they are called, may not be transferred “under any circumstances,” including death. But Bekerman, whose husband was a trust and estate lawyer, asked them to make an exception.

“It is with great sadness that I inform you that my beloved husband, Philip, passed away on Dec. 21,” she wrote in a letter faxed to Delta about two weeks later. “Please be so kind as to transfer his accrued SkyMiles into my account.”

“That did it,” said Bekerman, 69, of Westbury, N.Y., who managed her husband’s law office for more than two decades. Within a month of her sending the letter, Bekerman’s 28,547 Delta SkyMiles, accrued on business and vacation travel, were deposited into her account.

Business road warriors and other frequent travelers take note. Bekerman’s experience illustrates what lawyers and people familiar with frequent-flier programs describe as an inconsistency between what the rules say and how they are applied. Though the published “terms and conditions” of most airline programs specifically prohibit the transfer of frequent-flier miles on death, heirs are often able to get the rule waived.

When advocating on behalf of consumers, lawyers split hairs over fine-print wording, like that in United’s MileagePlus terms and conditions, which says “accrued mileage and certificates do not constitute property of the member.” Frequent-flier miles (and hotel points, too) are “definitely an item of property that’s potentially transferable on death,” said Robert K. Kirkland, a lawyer in Liberty, Mo., who is on a task force of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel that is studying these and other so-called digital assets. But through their program rules, “the airlines control the terms of that property,” he said.

Through its MileagePlus program, United has “made case-by-case exceptions,” allowing miles to be transferred after the death or divorce of a member, Karen May, a spokeswoman, said in an email; it charges a $150 transfer fee. Paul Skrbec, a spokesman for Delta, said by phone that its employees had “some flexibility” in applying the no-transfer-on-death policy. (American Airlines, which has similar terms, declined to elaborate.)

Anticipating that airline boilerplate may not be the last word, many lawyers include provisions in clients’ wills saying who gets the frequent-flier miles (and hotel points) when the account owner dies. If you do not specify, these assets are divided among the people who are entitled to your “residuary estate,” meaning what is left after expenses and specific bequests have been made. You will do your heirs a favor by leaving a list of these accounts in a separate document.

If you’re not vigilant about it, your executor — the person in charge of carrying out your wishes — can hire a service, WebCease, to track down these accounts, but they may not find everything. Fees are $99 for a search based on one email address, to a more thorough report for $400 and can be ordered only through a professional who is handling the estate.

Cheryl Bass, 68, of New York City inherited 50,000 American Express Membership Rewards points from her boss when he died two years ago. The other three beneficiaries were his close friends, said Bass, who was co-executor of the estate.

The American Express program is unusual because it specifically allows the transfer of points at death. Still, there is a caveat in the American Express rules, said Bernard A. Krooks, a lawyer with Littman Krooks in New York: “If you close the account, you lose the points.” Canceling credit cards promptly after someone dies is cited as good practice, to prevent future fraudulent charges. But it is important to redeem the points before you close the account, he said.

In stated policies or when negotiating exceptions to the rules, airline and bank card companies may give heirs a choice between transferring points to the heir’s account or converting them to cash or a gift card. If so, weigh the offer carefully, said Tim Winship, the editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com. As a rule of thumb, miles are worth about 1.2 cents apiece when you redeem them for a ticket, he said.

The first stop, heirs said, is the customer service representative who answers the company’s toll-free phone line. On subsequent calls, you probably won’t be able to speak with the same person, so be prepared to plead your case again. The flip side: If you don’t get the answer you want, you can keep calling back.