Cyberspace. It may have been a non-physical destination created in the imaginations of science fiction writers in the 1980s, but today it's a real place where most of us spend time — a lot of time.
What do we do in cyberspace? We communicate with each other, bank, shop, play games, travel and broaden our horizons in a multitude of ways without leaving the comfort of home and our Internet service.
The one thing most of us haven't considered is once you're connected, you're connected forever. In other words, there really is an online hereafter. Is it the fantasy opportunity to live forever? Maybe. But it might not be as appealing as it sounds.
Hillel Presser, an asset attorney and author of "Financial Self-Defense," says everything from online automatic bill pay to social media accounts don't necessarily stop just because you're no longer on Earth. And that, Presser says, "can create real headaches and more heartache for your family."
Unattended banking and shopping accounts can be up for grabs by identity thieves. The result can be creditors clamoring at the door and your estate left vulnerable. Family could be denied access to intellectual property or even health records if an identity thief is masquerading as you.
Even without the threat of identity thieves lurking in the background, family members might not be able to even retrieve sentimental memorabilia, like photos, emails or your libraries of music and ebooks.
And the problem isn't solved by simply leaving a record of all Internet accounts, log-ins and passwords where family members will find them. Why? Although laws have not kept pace with the expanding world of cyberspace, family members could face possible violations of federal privacy and computer fraud laws, not to mention differences in state laws.
"Some states have laws governing online materials, but they're different, and which of your accounts are covered depends on where the provider is located," Presser counsels.
Could your online hereafter really be the horrendous nightmare Presser suggests? Those in the legal know say, yes.
"It isn't an issue that has been a problem, but I can see it being an issue in the future," says District Judge Dennis Morris.
Presser recommends naming a digital executor. A digital executor is a person you authorize to access your log-in information and carry out your wishes regarding each account —providing access to loved ones or business partners, or even deleting it.
Ardmore attorney Mike Hisey says having a digital executor "is probably not a bad idea." He suggests asking a trusted "tech savvy" person to agree to take on the role.
"They (tech savvy individual) can work with your attorney. The legal process would document the source (person) that has the authority to take care of it," he explains.
Brett Morton agrees. The Ardmore lawyer says he recommends naming a digital executor or administrator to all his clients who are "technically active on social media" sites.
"In 2010, Oklahoma became one of the first states to recognize a need. The statute gives an executor or administrator power over social media accounts," Morton says.
What else can you do to make sure your family is not bogged down in cyberspace quicksand after you're gone? Here are two more "plan ahead" tips from Presser:
- Create a list of all of your accounts, including log-in names, passwords and answers to any security questions, and place it in secured storage. Since you'll need to update it regularly as you add accounts or change passwords, it will be easiest if you keep the list on your computer in a password-protected folder. Some versions of Windows allow you to create protected folders, but you may need to get third-party software to accomplish the task. Remember, it is also important to create a backup of your list, whether it's on a jump drive or printed out on paper. Store the backup in a secure place, such as a safe deposit box. Do not put password information in your will, which is a public document.
- If you have a Google account, set up the new inactive account manager. In May 2013, Google became the first site to give users an option of choosing what becomes of their content if they should become debilitated or die. Under the profile button, click "Account," scroll down to "Account Management," and you'll find instructions for "Control what happens to your account when you stop using Google." You can select how long the account should be inactive before your plans are set into motion; choose to whom you want to offer content, such as YouTube videos, Gmail, Google+ posts, Blogger and Picasa web albums; or whether it should simply be deleted.
Presser's most significant online hereafter advice?
"It's best to plan ahead," he says.