September 4, 2005 in Travel

Divying miles now part of separations

Tony Mecia Knight Ridder Newspapers
 

In the opening scene of the summer hit movie “Wedding Crashers,” the two main characters, who are mediators, help a divorcing couple divide assets.

One of the sticking points: the husband’s frequent-flier miles, which his wife accuses him of racking up to visit a mistress.

The scene is filled with plenty of crude humor, befitting the film’s “R” rating. But separating frequent-flier miles in a divorce is a serious and increasingly common issue.

One big hurdle: Airlines do not allow customers to transfer frequent-flier miles, even in a divorce. Moreover, placing a value on frequent-flier accounts can be tricky.

Still, some attorneys say that because frequent-flier programs are so widespread nowadays, travelers are thinking of them more as marital property to be divided in divorce.

“Now that people generally accept the idea that they’re property, people are more willing to divide them up or trade them for something else,” says Tate Sterrett, a Charlotte, N.C., lawyer who specializes in family law.

Sterrett once had a case in which the husband had more than 500,000 miles, which he had accumulated on business. The divorcing couple agreed to have the husband cash in miles for two tickets to Paris for the wife.

“That was our way of dealing with just the miles,” he said.

Other divorcing couples assign a value to the accumulated miles, and the spouse with the miles takes them as a credit when dividing marital assets.

In one of the few cases on the matter, a Minnesota court in 1999 determined that the miles are worth 2 cents per mile. The case is not binding in other states, but lawyers typically use that figure as a guidepost.

For someone with 25,000 miles, which generally is enough for a free round-trip domestic ticket, that’s about $500.

Sterrett says dividing miles is only an issue if one spouse has gobs of miles, say, more than 100,000. That works out to maybe 10 percent of his cases, he says.

In the “Wedding Crashers” scene, the husband relents and offers the wife his miles. The screenwriters apparently were unaware you cannot transfer miles. That’s Hollywood for you.

An important note: Although airlines won’t transfer frequent-flier miles from account to account for people who are alive, they will transfer them upon death. Amid grieving for a relative, many surviving kin forget to ensure that miles are transferred from the deceased’s account into theirs.

Airlines typically require a death certificate and legal documents proving the heirs to the miles, and some charge fees for the transfer.


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