An Unexpected Journey That Began a Lifelong Career in Estate Planning
An Interview With Jon E. Steffensen of McLane Middleton
Jon E. Steffensen, J.D., always thought he wanted to be a doctor. Then he was sure he'd become a college history professor. He was about to start the Ph.D. program in history at the University of Michigan after graduating from Yale University when he received a call that changed the trajectory of his life: he'd been drafted in Vietnam.
His draft physical was scheduled just days after his graduate program started. He was forced to defer his spot for a year since the examination required him to miss the first week of classes. After physicians detected a heart murmur during the exam, Jon wasn't approved to serve. He immediately called Northwestern University—one of the law schools he'd also applied to that hadn't yet started. They welcomed him into the program. And the rest is history.
That unexpected journey has led Jon to a 45-year career in estate planning, estate and trust administration, fiduciary counseling and charitable gift planning. During the past four decades, he has seen a lot change and evolve. But one thing has remained the same—helping others.
We recently chatted with Jon to hear more about his distinguished career, how Jon's practice has evolved, how he's remaining relevant today and why he's chosen to support the arthritis community.
Arthritis Foundation: You've seen a lot of change during the past 45 years of practice. What are the top trends that are affecting estate planning and clients today?
Jon: It used to be all about avoiding federal estate tax, but the vast majority of clients now face no federal estate tax liability. Today, it's all about engendering capital gains tax savings for heirs and descendants. The center of the practice has shifted from a tax avoidance to the utilization of trusts to provide benefits for the next generation.
Meanwhile, today's children are taking longer to start their careers. We're seeing clients lengthen the time on their asset distribution to their children. The very wealthy are doing more generation-skipping planning where they tie up assets and put a fraction of assets in a trust through their children's lifetimes and even through their grandchildren's lifetimes. The goal is to make sure that each child has an anchor that can't be reached by creditors or through a loss in a divorce. That provides a steady income stream for them and is a pool of capital that will always be there.
Arthritis Foundation: What are you and your firm doing to ensure your practice remains vibrant amidst demographic and cultural shifts as well as the changes in tax law?
Jon: First, we stay current on tax developments and work to understand how clients are reacting. Like any great business, we've built ours on relationships. When most clients come to us to develop an estate plan, they aren't sure how to proceed. It's a matter of meeting with clients, listening to their goals and then relaying to them what others of similar age and asset status have done. We work to help people focus on the utility of trusts, especially for the benefit of their children.
Arthritis Foundation: Early in your career, you got involved in the Arthritis Foundation. (Thank you!) Why have you chosen to support the arthritis community through your work?
Jon: When I first began practicing in the trust and estates area in 1972, my partner and mentor at the time was involved with the Arthritis Foundation. He got me involved, and I've been supporting the organization ever since. But my primary motivation for supporting the Arthritis Foundation was because both my parents suffered from arthritis.
My father was a plastic surgeon who developed such severe arthritis in his thumbs that he had to retire. My most rewarding work with the Arthritis Foundation was when I served on their national planned giving committee with trust and estate experts from across the country to help develop planned giving messaging and an advocacy program.
Arthritis Foundation: What's the best professional advice you've ever received in your career?
Jon: Listen. Listen to clients, hear them out and don't tell them what to do. Tailor their desires to the development of the estate plan.
Additionally, the first mentor I had who got me involved with the Arthritis Foundation told me never to let a day go by without returning every phone call and sending a quick reply to every email from a client. That's advice I still heed today.
Arthritis Foundation: What's something most people don't know about you?
Jon: When I retire, I want to write a biography on some well-known American researchers.
Arthritis Foundation: We can't wait to read it! Speaking of books, have you read anything lately you'd recommend?
Jon: I'm a big fan of nonfiction. I'm currently reading American Carnage about the seeds of the Trump takeover of the Republican party. I also read a lot of history and biographies.
Arthritis Foundation: When you're not in the office, what do you enjoy doing?
Jon: My passions are skiing and fly fishing. Skiing in the winter, and fly fishing in good weather.
Arthritis Foundation: What's a food you can't live without?
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