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November 2, 2000

Modern divorce: He got the air points and I got the shaft

Richard Foot
National Post

Divorcing couples are fighting over more than their houses, cars and company pension plans. They are also squabbling over frequent flyer points.

"They've become just like any other piece of property in a divorce," says Jeff Kay, a Vancouver divorce lawyer. "The attitude is, 'I've got them, and you can't have them'."

Lawyers say the average size of their clients' accounts is more than 100,000 points (an amount worth four Calgary-Montreal return tickets under Air Canada's Aeroplan system). However, some people own close to a million points. With that kind of value at stake -- translating into tens of thousands of dollars worth of airline tickets -- frequent flyer programs have become a major slice of a family's property pie.

"Part of the reason is because of the availability of points through credit cards," says Joel Miller, a Toronto lawyer. "Accumulating large numbers of points is now no longer restricted to the pool of people who are business travellers. It's reaching into almost anybody who has a point-earning credit card."

The trouble, say lawyers, is that airline points are often earned by only one spouse, who usually is less keen to part with their points than with their partner.

"People are emotionally attached to their air miles. They can be a huge deal," says Grant Gold, a divorce lawyer in Toronto.

Some frequent travellers are reluctant to share their points with a departing spouse because they will lose the prestige and perks that high points-earners enjoy as "elite" members of Air Canada's Aeroplan.

"People also see the miles as theirs," Mr. Gold says. "They say, 'I'm the one who sat on that airplane for all those hours. I'm the one who ate in the hotel.' And the spouse's opposition to that is, 'Sure you sat in the airplane, but I'm the one who dealt with the kids while you were gone and I had to plan all these things while you're off having a nice quiet evening'. "

Quite often, says Mr. Gold, "a judge has to sit down with them and say, 'I know you don't like it, but we've got to deal with the air miles issue'. "

Mr. Kay says many couples find ways to split a family's airline points without the help of a court. Some agree to use the points for their children's travel.

"Sometimes the air miles are used in a trade," Mr. Miller adds. "A spouse says, 'I'm not likely to travel, and I want the piano. So if you'll stop arguing about the piano you can keep the bloody air miles'. "

Air Canada, which has 4.3 million Aeroplan members, allows the transfer of point programs between spouses if a plan member dies, but does not allow transfers between divorcing spouses.

"The owning spouse then has to hold his points in trust," Mr. Kay explains. "And the non-owning spouse can contact the other from time to time and cause him to use his points to purchase tickets for them, up to a maximum number of points."

Sometimes lawyers ask a forensic accountant to evaluate in real terms what someone's airline account is worth. The dollar value is then added to the net worth of a particular spouse, before tangible assets are divided.

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