Your Delta SkyMiles Do Not Expire… Until You Do!

Delta Air Lines issued a strange announcement last week (buried in here on page 25), but some background may help. It is very common throughout the travel industry that at some point, loyalty program miles or points will expire. It varies by vendor but many will wipe out an account if there is no activity after maybe a year. This actually happened to me years ago with United Airlines.

Delta, however, has a policy that their miles never expire even if they were earned ten years ago and you never purchase anything else. While they are not the only one to be so benevolent, it is a benefit appreciated and a public relations high road.

With this background, it was quite surprising when Delta announced last week that your accumulated miles may indeed expire. Yes, you can accumulate them for years but your account may vanish coincident with your death. Of course this won’t affect you – after all, you have passed – but it will affect your heirs, maybe your spouse or children.

But it does more than that. It is very common for members to accumulate miles and points for special trips. It is not hard to imagine saving up those miles perhaps for a retirement party or very special anniversary. Now throw in a wrinkle that one person dies suddenly. By any measure, this is a tragedy by itself. While the vacation plans are obviously ruined, those miles could have been used to transport family and friends to a funeral or service.

Some of the largest accounts are held by business travelers. After all, they are the ones likely to fly the most, stay overnight at hotels the most, rent the most cars, etc. Imagine you have five million points accumulated but one sudden moment can wipe that out entirely.

It is gruesome enough to talk about such a topic but the fact is, Delta is implying you can transfer the miles if you plan properly. No, it will not happen for loved ones that die suddenly but for anyone else, they can be transferred prior to death. For example, those with diagnosed terminal illnesses may want to either quickly use or transfer their accumulated miles. Presumably, even someone on life support can have a document prepared giving another person the power of attorney to transfer the miles. Of course I realize that when anyone is so near death, very close to the last thing on their mind will be their loyalty points and miles (except perhaps those of us on BoardingArea!). Sadly, Delta has moved this to the forefront with their new policy.

Can Delta even do this? After all, didn’t I earn these miles through my years of loyalty? The vendor defense seems to center around their belief that they can change the rules whenever they desire. These terms, of course, change over time but presumably we agree to these changes as a condition to keep our accounts. However, I am not a lawyer so no legal opinion here.

Despite the negative public relations fallout here, Delta does use language that may offer some hope. Their program rules say “Delta reserves the right to deactivate or close an account…” In other words, they are not specifically saying they will close the account of someone who passes away, only that they can if they so desire. The vendors have – or at least believe they have – total control and absent court rulings otherwise, they will decide unilaterally what you can and can’t do.

Star 1Note that many other travel providers have similar policies already in place. There are, of course, far too many to list the policies of each one but this blog should give you pause to check out your favorite airline, hotel, car rental and other accounts to see just what their rules are. I know I’ll be checking out all of my accounts.



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  1. Strangely enough, a Marriott Rewards staffer told me the free CHASE VISA nights also “expire”. A family member passed away within six months of getting the card. The unredeemed free VISA nights from the sign up bonus were not allowed to be used by any family members.

  2. It’s kinda like a joint bank account. If your on the account and the other person dies the first thing you do it try to clean out that account so it doesn’t become locked up in probate or waiting for a will, etc. I would assume the same thing would happen with a points account except the spouse, etc. would need power of attorney to transfer those quickly before the event or the event it known.

  3. My father-in-law passed away in December. Prior to his death he gave me all of his log in information and said enjoy the points/miles. Delta did agree to transfer the miles to my wife’s account. Southwest and Marriott did not. We haven’t had any problems booking hotels and flights with them yet. The trips are always a little emotional since they were his to use, but we know he would them to get used.

  4. Jason, thank you for this post and very sorry for your loss. Each time you get to use his miles or points, this is one more opportunity to thank him for accumulating them. Seems to me this is a very touching way to remember a loved one but alas, Delta (now, not then) and others don’t see it that way at all.

  5. Ah DaninSTL, looks like you noticed the big difference. With a joint bank account, both are authorized users so either one can access everything without any documentation. That’s why it is called a joint account. Loyalty accounts from travel providers, however, are nearly always individual accounts. Therein lies the rub, and the challenge.

  6. My father likely to die of cancer in the next few weeks or months. He has 300k miles on Delta and would like my family to use the miles to fly to his funeral. I have all of his log in info. How does Delta know when he dies? Do I need to book the tickets before he dies and just pay to change the flights or can I wait?

  7. Hi Sue, so sorry to hear about your father. An airline – or any travel provider – likely will not know when someone passes away, at least not immediately. Some people have suggested that if you have access to a decedent’s account, just go into it and book tickets for others. I would agree this might work but if – that’s IF – there is any problem, the vendor could do lots of nasty things. First, they could freeze the account. Second, they may close out your own account because you violated their rules, forfeiting everything you have accumulated. But if they really want to be cruel, they could make an argument that this behavior is fraudulent.

    One way to avoid this is to transfer the miles to each family member now. For example, transfer 50,000 to each if there are six members of the family. That way the flights can be booked at the appropriate time by each family member and you can avoid the very expensive change fees. Of course, each person would have to create a SkyMiles account.

    Alternatively, you can transfer all the miles to one person in your family, such as yourself, and then book tickets when necessary. If someone in your family has Platinum or Diamond elite status with Delta, this may help you avoid the change fees if dates need to be altered.

    Best wishes to you and your family.

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