By Meghan Coyle
When a family member dies, you’ve got a lot of assets to sort through — the house, the bank accounts, not to mention their personal belongings — and their miles and credit card points might be last on your mind. But if your relative had a travel credit card or elite status with an airline or hotel, their stash of points could be worth a significant amount, and you might be wondering what happens to all of those points.
If you read the terms and conditions of most loyalty programs, they say that points are not property. That means you don’t legally own them and, technically, your relatives can’t bequeath them to you in their will. Each program has its own policy on what happens to the points of a deceased member, so there’s no one answer. Sometimes it’s as easy as contacting customer service and transferring the points to your own accounts, but other times, it may require documentation or other workarounds.
Here are some tips for navigating the process.
Keep Login Information Stored Safely
Because credit card issuers, hotels and airlines have such a wide range of policies, the quickest way to find out how many points your relative left behind is to know how to access their login information.
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This is crucial. If you haven’t already, communicate with your partner and/or children where to find this information for your accounts. Have a chat with relatives of yours about whether they’ve documented this information for themselves somewhere safely and securely.
Adding family members as authorized users on your credit cards or “pooling” points with designated people is another way to ensure family will still have access to the rewards if you die. But when in doubt, make sure a trusted individual knows where to get your login credentials.
While people technically can’t pass their points to beneficiaries through a will, some people leave instructions for their beneficiaries regarding their credit card and travel rewards, including the logins. The information may also be available if your family member utilized a password service such as 1Password or LastPass.
Without login information, there might be no other way to recoup the points. Some programs may close the member’s account after confirming their death, but sometimes there is a specific window of time before the points will be gone for good. If you have the login information handy, you can use the points before they become invalid.
Contact Customer Service and Keep a Copy of the Death Certificate Handy
Every loyalty program has different rules, so you’ll have to check with each program to see if you can utilize the points. Some programs offer a compassionate approach. For example, American Express (AXP) - Get Report allows AmEx Membership Reward points to be reinstated in another person’s account or redeemed by an eligible party, like the estate.
If you’re working with a customer service rep, you will likely need to submit a copy of the death certificate to complete the transaction. Keep one nearby throughout this process. Plus, you’ll need that certificate for pretty much everything else when you’re dealing with the estate of a family member.
Even if the airline, hotel or credit card issuer has a published policy that takes away the deceased member’s points, it’s worth calling anyway. Many customer service representatives have the ability to waive transfer fees and credit the miles to your account. While you’re on the phone, don’t forget to ask about any award travel that might have been booked before your relative died. You might be able to get the miles or points for that trip reinstated as well.
I Have the Points. Now What?
The top option is probably booking travel. That’s what many of these loyalty programs were intended for, and you’ll often get the best value for the points this way.
Through this process, you might acquired some points for a loyalty program you’re not familiar with or don’t use often. You don’t want to do all of this work just to have the points sit in a forgotten account. After all, points usually devalue over time and some flat out expire if you don’t use them.
If you suddenly have a chunk of credit card points, one option is to transfer them to an airline or hotel loyalty program that you do use. Check what transfer partners the credit card issuer offers to turn them into a more useful currency for you.
Another option is to donate the points. Many loyalty programs work with specified charities to turn miles donations into cash contributions. Your loved one’s points and miles won’t go to waste this way — they’ll go to a good cause.
Statement credits and gift cards are also options, but they rarely provide good value. That said, dealing with a family member’s death can be emotionally overwhelming, and if you just need to simplify things, these are options.
The Bottom Line
Handling matters after a family member’s death can be difficult, but in the process, you might be able to transfer or use your deceased relative’s credit card, airline or hotel points. Obtaining access to your relative’s accounts legally is the swiftest way to make sure the points don’t go to waste, but even without that option, customer service may be able to help.
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Meghan Coyle is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @inkwaves.