'Til death do us part: Reward points don't live on

After you die, here's what happens to your reward points
After you die, here's what happens to your reward points

Loyalty club members often worry that a program will end up six feet under, leaving them with nothing to show for participating. But if you die, those points and miles amassed may be just as worthless.

Delta SkyMiles, Southwest Rapid Rewards and Hilton HHonors are among the loyalty programs that generally do not allow points to be transferred after death, according to a new study from Colloquy, a market research firm.

"The issue is handled on a case-by-case basis, but HHonors will let members submit a death certificate for a one-time, fee-free transfer," said Dasha Ross, director of portfolio communications at Hilton Worldwide.

Other programs, including American Express Membership Rewards, Citibank's ThankYou Rewards and Best Western Rewards, don't have policies detailed online—which the research firm reports can lead to conflicting interpretations from customer service representatives.

(See the chart below for policies for 13 airline, hotel and credit card rewards programs.)

"I don't think there's any sort of gamesmanship going on," said study author Jeff Berry. "Companies just have not thought through what happens when membership ends" because someone dies, said Berry, also Colloquy's research director.

’Til death do us part?
Which rewards balances live on after you die
Program name # of Members (in Millions) Allows point transfer after death To whom Policy published online Fee applies
Delta SkyMiles 90 No NA Yes NA
Mileage Plus United 90 Yes Beneficiary Not clear $150
AAdvantage 69 Yes Beneficiary Yes Free
US Airways Dividend Miles 30 Yes Beneficiary Yes Free
Southwest Rapid Rewards 30 No NA Yes NA
Hilton HHonors 38 No NA Yes NA
Marriott Rewards 44 Yes Spouse or Domestic Partner Yes Free
Starwood Preferred Guest 25 Yes Spouse/Friend (if Active SPG member) Yes Free
Best Western Rewards 20 Yes Spouse or beneficiary No Free
Credit card
American Express Membership Rewards NA Yes Executor of Estate (if member) No Free
Citi ThankYou Rewards NA Yes NA No NA
BankAmericard Travel Rewards NA Yes Beneficiary Yes Free
US Bank Flex Perks NA Yes Executor Estate No Free
Source: Colloquy Inherit the Windfall 2013

The question of what happens to rewards upon death is becoming a bigger issue as Americans join more programs and their balances get bigger—potentially leaving more on the table, when reward holders die. In 2011, outstanding loyalty points had a collective value of $50 billion by Colloquy's estimates.

Take the case of Randy Petersen. If he passed away tomorrow, he'd leave behind more than 20 million miles. Petersen, founder of Frequent Flyer Services, a publisher of frequent flyer analysis, holds millionaire status in five hotel programs and four airlines. That's why he has a mileage estate plan.

"It'll all go to my lovely bride," Petersen said. "I've already given her all my passwords and everything else."

But Petersen is in the minority. According to Colloquy, 76 percent of respondents in an April survey of 1,252 adults haven't considered who would inherit their reward balances.

"This is something we're encouraging clients to ask questions about," said certified financial planner Tim Maurer. He's also vice president at The Financial Consulate in Hunt Valley, Md. Account numbers, passwords and balances for valuable loyalty memberships should be included in an addendum to a will, in the same way that people already list individual pieces of property, Maurer said.

Bequeathing point balances in your will won't supersede program terms of service, though. "What you have to understand from an inheritance aspect is that you are largely bound by the contract you agreed to," said Evan Carroll, co-author of "Your Digital Afterlife." "Not much can be done unless you're operating inside those particular regulations."

Kevin Clark | The Washington Post | Getty Images

The Marriott Rewards program, for example, only allows transfer of points to a spouse or domestic partner. Some programs allow heirs to redeem points, but not transfer them, Berry said.

Programs can also have complicated inheritance policies—requiring estate executors to pay transfer fees or send in death certificates within a set window after the account holder passes on.

"We're advocating an explicit policy," said Berry. "It's obviously an awkward time for someone, at the point at which they're cleaning up someone's estate. They shouldn't have to make a number of calls to figure this out."

Consumers with big balances may want to explore the issue of bequeathing rewards while they're still alive, said Carroll. That can entail redeeming rewards for others to use, or transferring them to a family member or friend.

One key catch: While you're alive, most programs charge a transfer fee for each point or mile, plus a service fee, which can add up to hundreds of dollars for shifting a large balance. If you pass away, company policies often waive such transfer fees.

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @kelligrant