Advocacy Through Estate Planning
“It’s so important to show your gratitude, to help make more possible for the next generation and to continue to break down barriers. For these reasons, giving back was easy for me to do.”
Trusts and estates lawyer Thomas K. Chu ’89CC is well-versed in philanthropy through planned giving. Thom began thinking about his own charitable legacy formally when he began a second career in the law, but his dedication to the causes he cares about has been a thread throughout his life. As a student activist at Columbia in the 1980s, in professional capacities, and in membership in the 1754 Society—which recognizes individuals who make estate and other planned gifts to Columbia—Thom not only talks about the power of giving, but as he puts it “walks the walk.” In 2019, Thom modified his life insurance policy to form the Thomas K. Chu Scholarship Fund, and he is eager to share with others how they too can advocate for places like Columbia through their estate plans.
Academics and activism fuel a journey of personal growth
Thom grew up in New York City, the child of Chinese immigrants, and went on to become the first in his family to earn a four-year degree. When it came to college, Columbia was the clear choice for Thom. Attending Columbia would allow him to experience living on campus while spending weekends with his family. Thom also had a range of academic interests, all of which were available to study at Columbia. However, it was more than location and academic reputation that drew Thom to apply early decision to Columbia—the student body’s history of social activism had a powerful pull on the young student seeking to immerse himself in religious life, the LGBTQIA+ community, and social activism.
Immerse himself he did. “Columbia was a great place to flourish,” Thom said as he detailed his time at the University. He joined a cohort of students organizing through the University’s chaplaincy to advocate for divestment from apartheid South Africa and supported efforts to introduce more authors of color and women authors into Columbia’s Core Curriculum. Thom became involved in the Columbia Gay Lesbian Alliance (still in existence today as the Columbia Queer Alliance), working to foster a community for his gay and lesbian classmates by making health resources available, hosting social events, and by encouraging a dialogue on campus. The student organization’s distinction as the oldest of its kind in the country drew his interest, and he has remained active with the organization throughout his time as an alumnus.
“Columbia was a place of such nurture for me in terms of my own spiritual and religious life.” Thom said, describing the combination of freedom and structure that the University provided. “I was attracted to Columbia because it was the place where student protests were going on and were encouraged by people like Bill Starr [Rev. Dr. William Frederic Starr was Columbia’s Episcopal Campus Minster from 1966-2002]. I felt like I could contribute, twenty years after the late ’60s, in a very different chapter. Now I look back on that and activism is still part of who I am today.”
Advocating for others, himself, and future Columbia students
After graduation, Thom joined the national staff of the Episcopal Church in a position focused on advocacy and nurturing young people. In 2008, the onset of the financial crisis and the unexpected death of his mother led to a career change. Thom began attending law school at Hofstra University, intent on becoming the empathetic estate planner he wished for when coping with his mother’s death.
Trusts and estates law turned out to be an ideal fit for someone of Thom’s life experience. Over their thirty-year relationship, he and his late husband, Adam Lewis, had become well-versed in structuring protections for themselves through estate planning before they gained the right to marry, which they did in 2011. The experience gave Thom a unique sensitivity and a distinct vantage point on the ways estate planning can both protect families, and create a vehicle for advocacy. “I think of my work in estate planning as helping people protect the ones they love most, and the causes they care about,” Thom explained.
As he advised clients, Thom looked inwardly at his own philanthropic giving. He began looking into long-term care insurance in his 40s and purchased a universal life policy for long-term care coverage. At the time of his 30th reunion, Tom turned to this asset and named Columbia College as a 10 percent beneficiary to be used to establish, upon his death, the Thomas K. Chu Scholarship.
When discussing the creation of this scholarship, Thom emphasized how easy it was to do. A simple form designated Columbia as a beneficiary, and now, he plans to build off the initial gift through other financial resources he will come into during his lifetime. “I don’t have children, so Columbia is part of my legacy. It’s part of the reason I am the person I am today, and I want to show that appreciation,” Thom said.
Thom’s scholarship will benefit students who demonstrate leadership in Asian-American communities and are first in their family to attend college. He sees it as reflective of his own legacy as a first-generation college student with a passion for activism and has welcomed the opportunity to show students Columbia’s alumni of color who are role models for giving back. “I like saying I have a named scholarship at Columbia because I want to inspire other people to do it and to understand how easy it is to do yourself.”
Community and purpose through the 1754 Society
As a 1754 Society Ambassador, Thom embraces the network that Columbia provides for donors of bequests, trusts, and other planned gifts. He finds excitement in his commonalities with members. In his professional and volunteer work, Thom wants others to realize that people from modest backgrounds have the ability to create impact through gift planning.
“Our lives have meaning, and we make meaning through learning. I think for most people, they’ll find a sense that they learned how to think at Columbia. And that’s something we take as our legacy wherever we go.”
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