Your vision of your wedding day may be full of pretty Pinterest-y images and stomach-flipping emotion, but it should also include the calm confidence that you have solid wedding contracts backing you up. Contracts control your money, and they control the products and services you will receive on your wedding day. Want to make sure you get the photos you’re paying for on time? Get a wedding photography contract. Want to make sure food for that photographer is covered in the meals you paid for? Get a wedding catering contract. Pay attention and use this experience as an opportunity to really lean in, hone your negotiating skills, and be a badass bride who knows her legal rights.
Brace yourself and imagine that something goes wrong: your flowers don’t arrive, your dress was cut too short in alterations, or your band starts packing up to leave after playing for only an hour. Usually (like ninety-nine percent of the time), a good contract can solve those disputes quickly and without too much drama. The other one percent of the time, your contract will allow you to pursue a legal remedy through the court system.
Here are the basics you need to know in order to confidently handle all your wedding contracts:
WHAT IS REQUIRED IN ORDER TO FORM A CONTRACT? An offer, acceptance, and consideration on the part of both parties. “Consideration” just means what the person is required to do (or not do) under the contract. For example, pay money, officiate the service, or let you use her home as a venue. A contract requires that both parties provide consideration; otherwise it is a gift. So if your cousin offers to do your wedding photos for free, and you don’t have to promise anything in return, that isn’t actually an enforceable contract. That’s a gift, and you can’t (usually) go to court to enforce a gift. My advice is that relying on gifts is risky. Try to figure out a way to provide consideration of some kind in exchange for whatever they are offering. Consideration does not have to be equal, so get creative. Just remember that whatever you agree to is binding on you as well, so follow through.
PLAN AHEAD AND DON’T HIDE THE BALL. Before you meet with any vendor, think about what you want and what you don’t want. Make a plan for how you will raise these issues when negotiating your contract. While it may be awkward to bring up certain things, leaving them unspoken is not a successful contracting strategy. If you know you’ll be too uncomfortable to raise certain issues in the meeting, try sending a pre-meeting email laying out the topics you want to discuss, or bring a friend tasked with bringing up the dreaded request.
GET. IT. IN. WRITING. The law recognizes verbal contracts, and we all know that they happen every day, but do you really want to be arguing with your florist on your wedding day about whether you two agreed on five bridesmaid’s bouquets or eight? The problem with a verbal contract is that there is almost no way to prove that you are right, even if you KNOW that you never would have ordered five bouquets when you have eight bridesmaids. So PLEASE just get it in writing, okay? Some contracts must be in writing in order to be enforceable (for example, contracts for services that cannot be completed within one year or contracts for the sale of goods over $500). Additionally, a written contract prevents problems from ever arising because no one has to rely on memory as to the terms of the agreement.
When you are working with a friend or family member, asking for a written contract can be tricky, but it can help prevent awkwardness, disappointment, or worse. Memorize this line, “I would really like for us to put all of this down in writing so that we don’t have to remember all the details.” The key here is just to get a basic description of your agreement in writing and signed by both people. What are you required to do? What is she required to do? Your contract can be very short, handwritten on a sheet of notebook paper, and in plain English—no technical contract terms required!
BE SPECIFIC. Your contract with the florist calls for all white flowers and he shows up bearing nothing but tiny bundles of baby’s breath. Well, those teeny tiny little buds are all white… This is why specificity is important! If you worked together to design a specific arrangement using lilies and tulips, say so in the contract. Attach photos, magazine clippings, or the florist’s sketches. Your goals here are twofold: First, you want the vendor to be able to use this contract to meet your requests and make your wedding day exactly as you envision it. Second, your goal is to be clear enough that an outsider (possibly a judge) could read it and understand what you two agreed upon. Define terms if you need to. Not every photographer has the same understanding of terms like “photojournalism” and “detail shots.”
BE CLEAR ABOUT WHO IS PAYING! Because so many weddings today are a group effort, wedding contracts need to be specific as to who is obligated to pay. If you sign a contract saying that you will pay a certain amount of money, you are obligating yourself (YOU individually) to pay. Even if you verbally tell the venue manager that your in-laws have offered to pay for the open bar, it doesn’t matter if that contract says you are responsible for the full amount. Don’t sign anything saying that you are paying if you are not prepared to be personally responsible for payment. If your mom and dad have agreed to pay for the venue, they need to be the ones signing the contract.
BE CLEAR ABOUT WHEN/HOW PAYMENT IS TO BE MADE. Does your vendor require some (or all) of the money up front before they will do any work, or do they send you an invoice after the wedding? You don’t want to find out that you have no wedding cake because the baker was waiting for you to pay a deposit. Speaking of deposits, they are negotiable too! If you don’t feel comfortable paying sixty percent up front, say so. And for goodness’ sake, don’t pay a hundred percent up front unless you really know and trust the vendor (as in, it’s your mom).
REFER TO YOURSELF IN THE THIRD PERSON. Yep, it is totally annoying when someone does it in conversation, but it is totally awesome in a written contract. Instead of “I” and “me” and “you” and the like, simply put your name and the vendor’s name. Your contract is now clearer and more specific.
READ EVERY SINGLE WORD. If you are entering into a written contract that is provided by a vendor, which is usually the case, you need to know what you are signing. If you don’t understand something, ASK. If you still don’t get it, or if the verbal explanation doesn’t clearly match what you are reading, SAY SO. If you sign something that says you are required to pay a fifty percent late fee, it’s going to be really hard for you to prove that the vendor verbally told you that she would waive any late fee. The written contract controls, so make sure the writing accurately reflects your understanding of the agreement. If it doesn’t, you two need to modify it. Make some notes on that written contract before you sign it. Talk it over with your vendor and then just make a few notes in the margins and put your initials beside them. Have the vendor initial those notes as well. Your notes are now part of the contract. If your vendor scoffs at adding notes, especially if those notes simply restate the verbal assurances she has already given you, you need to find a new vendor.
PRE-PRINTED CONTRACT FORMS ARE NOT SET IN STONE! You can still negotiate changes. Don’t let them tell you that they can’t change things simply because those things are printed on their standard form. You two can decide to mark through provisions, make notes, make additions, attach extra pages, whatever you want. Just make sure that you both initial any changes that you make. If the vendor refuses to budge on certain contract points, that’s their right. But “it’s already printed on the form” is not a good enough reason. Ultimately, you can decide whether you want to do business with that particular vendor under those conditions.
DON’T SIGN AWAY YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS. For example, if you live in Texas and you are getting married in Texas, why would you sign a contract that says you agree to be bound by Vermont law and to appear in a Vermont court should a dispute arise? That would be a huge inconvenience to you… and that’s the point. Companies put these provisions in their contracts because they know that it will make it much less likely that you’ll take them to court if things go sour. The same goes for mandatory arbitration or mediation provisions—these can make it more costly for you to recover for breach of contract, should the need arise.
GET A COPY! If you enter into a written contract and the vendor has the only copy, it will do you absolutely no good in the event of a dispute. You need to have (and keep) a copy.
WHEN YOU MAKE MODIFICATIONS TO THE CONTRACT, GET. THOSE. IN. WRITING. TOO. This is where people screw up! Like a good student, you got your original contract in writing, signed by both parties, and you have a copy tucked away in a safe place (right?). Now you need to make a small (or big) change—for example, you need ten more meals from your caterer. You call up the caterer, explain the situation, and quickly reach an agreement that you will pay an additional $200 and she will add ten additional meals to the contract. You now have to amend your written contract to reflect the change. The best option is for you and the vendor to either handwrite the change onto a copy of your original contract, date it, and both sign it or to create, sign, and date a brand new “Amended Contract.” However, in a pinch, it is enough to exchange emails or text messages confirming the change. Just make sure that your vendor actually responds (in writing) confirming the changes, or your emails and text messages will be useless (your vendor could easily say “I never agreed to that.”) Keep bugging her until she confirms the change in writing. Here’s a text message example:
You: Hey, Carla, I am confirming that we just spoke and agreed that you’d add ten additional meals to our contract for an additional $200, is that correct?
Carla: Yep, that’s right.
You have now modified your contract and confirmed the modification in writing. Easy!
DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT. In my line of work, “document” is a verb. It means make a record of everything. So, for example, if you pay in full for your wedding dress, you need a receipt. If your wedding cake is delivered in poor condition, take photos and contact the vendor immediately (contacting her in writing is even better). In reality, you aren’t going to have documentation of every little thing that happens, but anything that makes you nervous or presents the potential for problems deserves at least a photo or note.
WHAT TO DO IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG. If something happens that you believe violates your contract, you should notify the vendor immediately, give them an opportunity to remedy the situation, and then assert your legal rights if necessary. The basic idea here is that you shouldn’t sue your florist for breach of contract if you never notified her that there was a problem with the flowers. If a vendor falls short of a contractual obligation, contact them immediately (preferably in writing, or follow up in writing) and give them a chance to remedy the situation or discount the contract price to reflect the shortcoming (be reasonable here; you aren’t going to get a fifty percent discount for a small shortcoming, but it is fine to say that you won’t pay for the two bouquets that weren’t delivered). If you two can reach some sort of agreement as to the problem, great. If not, you now have to decide how you want to proceed.
Under the law, a material breach of contract by one party (the vendor) means that the other party (you) is no longer required to perform his or her obligations under the contract and is entitled to all available legal remedies. If you receive goods or services that are substantially less than what you bargained for, you are not required to pay. I cannot stress enough, however, that the breach must be substantial. You don’t want to refuse payment over something insignificant; you could end up paying what you owe under the contract AND expensive legal fees. Think long and hard before you refuse payment on this basis, but remember that it is your legal right to do so if your vendor commits a material breach of contract. In this situation you will almost always end up in court, so make sure you have covered all your bases: you have a written contract that is specific as to the issue now in dispute; you notified the vendor when you recognized that there was a problem; and you documented everything with photos, emails, witnesses, etc. At that point, you need to notify the vendor, in writing, that she has materially breached the contract by doing XY & Z and that, due to that breach, you will not be making any future payments under the contract. At that point, you cannot expect any further performance from your vendor, either. You may get angry phone calls and/or emails from the vendor, but be careful: anything you say could be used against you in court. Many of us try to smooth over conflict by apologizing or being self-deprecating. Don’t do that! As soon as you make a comment like, “I’m probably overreacting,” you can bet that it will be the vendor’s Exhibit A when you get to court. Your best bet is to consult an attorney. Your second best bet is to keep your mouth shut—don’t say anything! You have already stated that there was a material breach and that you are refusing payment; nothing more needs to be discussed.
SAVED BY THE CREDIT CARD? A good friend recently discovered that her reception venue, a local restaurant, had shut down. When the restaurant refused to refund her deposit, she contacted her credit card company (the card upon which her deposit had been paid) and explained the situation. The credit card company stopped payment to the venue, and the restaurant eventually decided that it wasn’t worth it to try to fight the credit card company over her deposit, knowing that they had breached the underlying contract. The moral of that story is that if you have a contract dispute, sometimes you don’t have to wait until you can get into court to get relief. If you paid by credit card, contact your card company first and see what they can do.
CONTRACTS ARE TOOLS THAT CAN PROTECT YOU, GIVE YOU PEACE OF MIND, AND KEEP YOUR WEDDING DAY RUNNING SMOOTHLY. Don’t be afraid to use them. Just Remember:
- Get it in writing.
- Read Everything.
- Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
- A simple contract is always better than no contract at all!
And though nobody may have ever said it before: happy contracting!
Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is intended by the author and APW to serve as general information and guidance. It does not constitute or serve in place of specific legal advice and does not create any attorney-client relationship. The law changes very rapidly, differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and is subject to interpretation by the courts. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and this post should not be used as a substitute for the advice of competent legal counsel.
This post originally ran on APW in July 2014.