What Should a Guest Do If They Can't Attend a Wedding at the Last Minute?

Step one: Update the couple ASAP.

A wedding reception table set with place settings before dinner.

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Plans change—we get it! And though it may seem like being a no-show at a large event such as a wedding might not be such a big deal, that’s actually not the case. “It’s more than just the price of a meal,” explains event planner Robyne Bryant. “There’s also the bar fee and the cost for your entire place setting. Also: Every six to ten guests is another table needed, so if six to ten people cancel in the last two weeks, that could be $1,800 the couple could have saved.” 

While it is important to honor your RSVP for both financial and personal reasons, emergencies do happen. If you can’t attend a wedding at the last minute, consider this your expert-approved guide to alerting the marrying couple with kindness, consideration, and grace.

Meet the Expert

1. Update the Person Collecting RSVPs 

If someone other than the couple is collecting RSVPs, you’ll want to ensure they’re made aware of the change in your attendance as soon as possible. For efficiency's sake, Bryant suggests reaching out to this person first—“if they respond, no need to bother the couple,” she notes—but your relationship with the couple might determine otherwise (see Number 2). 

If the couple is collecting RSVPs via their wedding website, you’ll want to electronically update your attendance there as well, but only do so after you’ve personally communicated with the couple. Otherwise, they may think the change in headcount is a mistake, or miss it entirely.

2. Update the Couple 

The way in which you break the news will depend on both your relationship with the couple as well as how close it is to the big day. If it’s four weeks or less until their big day, it’s safe to assume they’ll be too busy finalizing wedding plans to answer a phone call, but certain relationships warrant one no matter what. “If this is a really close friend or family member, a phone call would be best no matter how soon it is before the wedding,” advises etiquette expert Mariah Grumet. “If not, a genuine, well-thought-out text message will suffice.” 

If you don’t end up hearing back from the couple—which is fair, considering they’re likely overwhelmed with other details—Grumet recommends reaching out to someone close to the pair after a few days to ensure the message was received.

3. Craft Your Language Carefully 

When writing your text, you’ll want to be succinct and apologetic. Be honest about your reason for backing out, but know it’s also not a good look to divulge every last detail. “You want to provide a valid reason, as having to change your RVSP last-minute is not ideal,’ says Grumet. “However, you don't need to make your explanation too lengthy. You don't want the tone to come off as all about you! 

Most importantly: end on a high note by congratulating the couple on their impending nuptials. Below, Grumet offers a sample script:

Hello ___, 

I am regretfully reaching out to let you know that we need to change our RSVP to your wedding. My grandmother is in the hospital, forcing us to have to miss your big day.  I cannot begin to tell you how truly sorry we are not only that we are not able to attend, but also for the fact that we are canceling at the last minute. I know the burden that this causes, and we send our deepest apologies. 

Congratulations to one of the most special couples we know. I know the weekend is going to be absolutely sensational, and we cannot wait to celebrate this exciting time with you both.

While your initial apology note might mention a desire to find another time to celebrate with the couple, this is not the time to start discussing specific plans. 

4. Plan to Still Send a Gift 

Even if you’re no longer attending IRL, that doesn’t excuse you from purchasing a gift for the couple. (In fact, both Grumet, Bryant, and gifting etiquette at large agree that you should still send a present or contribute to a couple’s honeymoon fund even if you were not able to attend the wedding in the first place.) In this particular scenario, though, following through on the gesture will confirm to the couple that you had every intention of attending, which helps soften the blow.

5. Follow Up After the Fact 

“It would definitely be thoughtful to reach out to the couple within a week or two of—but no earlier than 48 hours after—their wedding,” says Grumet. While a text is a great approach, you can also comment on photos posted on social media. In your messaging, “focus on them and your best wishes, not the fact that you were unable to make it,” Grumet adds. 

If the couple is back from their honeymoon, this might also provide a natural segway to proposing plans to get together. “Mention that you would like to host them for a celebratory dinner, and offer for them to give you dates that work at their convenience” suggests Grumet.

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