You wouldn’t buy a house or a car without knowing exactly what you’re getting into, right? The same holds true for a wedding. A wedding is a significant financial undertaking, and wedding contracts ensure you know exactly what you’re getting, when and how you’ll pay for it, and, perhaps most importantly, what happens if those services aren’t able to be delivered in full. You'll have contracts for your venue and important vendors, so don’t sign on the dotted line without spending some time with the pages.
“As elementary as it sounds, read the contract,” says Caroline Fox of The Engaged Legal Collective. “This is a really big investment. You shouldn’t throw 10 or 15 thousand dollars at something without knowing what’s going on.”
Meet the Expert
Caroline Fox is a licensed attorney based in Richmond, VA. She owns and operates CJFox Law, PLLC, where she has been named to Virginia's Legal Elite and Super Lawyers "Rising Stars." She also founded The Engaged Legal Collective, a contract and legal resource shop for event professionals.
But, what’s included in these agreements for your vendors and wedding venue? What’s the proper protocol for signing one, and what does all that legal jargon actually mean? Read on for everything you need to know about wedding contracts.
Why Are Wedding Contracts Important?
Wedding planning can often feel like it’s all romance and butterflies, but, at the end of the day, working with a vendor is a business transaction—and it’s crucial to ensure the components of that transaction are clear to both sides. “A contract makes sure everyone is on the same page,” says Fox. "It also protects both parties from potential issues.”
To that end, you should expect a contract from pretty much every vendor participating in your big day. One-off purchases—an Etsy cake topper, for example—will be the exception, but anything involving custom work, payment installments, or goods used and services performed on the wedding day should come with a formal agreement. That means the creator of a custom escort card wall, the shop that sold you your wedding dress, and your caterer will all require a contract.
“Making sure that everything you expect from the vendor is in the contract is the most important thing,” says Fox. “If it’s not in the contract, it doesn’t necessarily matter. You could have something in an email, but that doesn’t necessarily count. If you want it, put it in the contract.” For the rest of the document, think like a journalist: Determine the who, what, when, where, why, how, how many, and how much of your agreement, and be sure those items are included.
How Are Wedding Contracts Organized?
Want to know how to read your wedding contracts. They are typically broken into sections called clauses. Ahead, we break down the key clauses to look for.
This clause should include a specific rundown of what you’ll be receiving from a vendor. It should go beyond a general description of their business. “If you’re getting photography services, what does that mean?” explains Fox. “Are you getting a certain number of hours, a certain number of photos? That’s what should be included in the service section.” The service section should also specifically detail who is providing the services. Are you contracting with an individual, or are you contracting with a company? That distinction can become important later on if a conflict arises.
This section is also where you’ll find logistical details, as well as communication guidelines. The latter is especially important when working with a planner. Clearly knowing what’s included in a month-of, day-of, or full-service wedding planning package will help you understand when you can expect their services to kick in and how quickly you should expect to receive a reply from them during the wedding planning process.
What’s excluded from a contract can be just as important as what’s included. Event planners, for example, might not include clean-up in their package. As a couple, you need to know that so you can arrange for alternative services.
If your wedding is happening outside of a vendor’s standard radius of service, what additional costs are you expected to take on to get them there? Is it a per diem, or are you agreeing to book or reimburse flights? Are you reimbursing their meals? Are you booking a hotel room for them? If they will be driving, will there be a mileage charge? Knowing the answers to these questions is crucial for budgeting purposes.
Your contract should also spell out all things around payment for the service or good. What is the non-refundable deposit? When are payment installments due? When are additional payments refundable versus non-refundable? What are the overage fees? What are the penalties if you are late on a payment? These financial details should be clearly listed out in this section.
Postponements and Cancellations
Your contracts will also likely address if a wedding date has to move or is canceled. What is a vendor’s rescheduling policy? If the event needs to be pushed back, is the retainer fee transferable? What happens if you need to reschedule and the vendor cannot accommodate your new date? Having clear expectations about how to move forward in situations like these can save a lot of headaches down the road.
Termination is different from cancellation in that it results from something that happens within the relationship between the vendor and the couple, not outside of it. It should be treated as a separate clause from Postponement and Cancellation. If you as a couple are not happy with the services being provided by the vendor, how do you get out of a contract that’s not serving you? How do you move forward, and what happens to the payments you made along the way?
Sometimes, a major natural emergency will get in the way of services taking place, which is known as a force majeure. As a contract clause, this French phrase is a way for a party to excuse their performance of a contract without penalty where there are situations beyond the control of said party that were not foreseeable in any way. Per Fox, a force majeure clause does need to name a specific event as a force majeure event in order for that event to be counted under the clause. Examples of force majeure events include hurricanes, wildfires, tsunamis, destruction of a venue or wedding location, and, yes, pandemics.
In the U.S., the degree of specificity required to enforce force majeure clauses varies from state to state. “Some states say you have to be really, really specific,” says Fox. “If it’s not in the contract, they’re not going to expand upon it. Other states will take that language and say anything that’s similar will count. Maybe a measles outbreak wasn’t technically declared a pandemic, for example, but it had similar impacts on society. That may count in your state.”
Both the couple and the vendor will want to hold onto a copy of the contract that has been signed by both members of the couple as well as the vendor.
Contingency plans are needed in case there is an issue with the event itself. They might not might not always be explicitly listed in the contract, but it is still something you’ll want to discuss with your vendor in advance. "For contingency plans generally, those are going to depend on the vendor. For some types of vendors, the contingency plans will be present in the contract, but for others, there's just a general 'we will have to make backup plans' and it is less clear," says Fox.
Generally speaking, two types of contingency plans are needed in an event. Contingency if there is an issue with the event itself and contingency if there is an issue with the vendor. Any vendor that is a single provider of services should give you an idea of what happens if they become sick or unable to work your event. They’ll usually have an associate or back-up professional that can take their place, and you’ll want to be sure the plan is clear in the contract.
“Do you need to get a tent for an outdoor event in the chance it rains? What if there is a drought and the florals are unavailable? Does your planner have a backup plan if your event gets moved indoors? These are the things experienced vendors will already have in their heads because they've seen and been through it all,” says Fox. “A newer, fresh-faced vendor, however, may not be thinking about these types of creative solutions in advance.” If a plan is not already in your contract, you may ask your vendor to write one up.
Common Wedding Contract Terms
Here is a glossary of terms you may encounter in a wedding contract:
- Retainer: Retainer is another word for a non-refundable deposit. It’s the fee you pay to reserve a vendor’s services on the date of your wedding. It’s typically non-refundable unless your vendor is the one who needs to cancel.
- Liquidated damages: You’ll see this term in the clause pertaining to the retainer. It’s essentially the legal term for a non-refundable deposit and is used as compensation for booking your event and any work that is done upfront.
- Jurisdiction and Venue: This term refers to where lawsuits regarding your contract can take place. “If you’re having a destination event, your vendors may have jurisdiction in a venue of that location,” says Fox. “So you couldn’t sue them in your home state.”
- Act of God: An act of God is a subclass of a force majeure event. The phrase is often used to classify events outside of human control or creation, such as fires, floods, lightning strikes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. An act of God would not include things like labor strikes or government restrictions resulting from a pandemic.
- Waiver: Waiver addresses lapses in payment. “Just because you miss a payment by accident or your vendor lets you slide on one, it doesn’t mean you can do that in the future,” says Fox.
- Severability: This term is used to uphold a contract overall in the event that a certain portion of the contract becomes unenforceable. That portion of the contract can be nixed, or severed, without nullifying the contract in its entirety.
- Indemnification: You’ll see this term in contracts for large-scale events and contracts outside of the wedding world, too. “Indemnify, defend and hold harmless” means you’ll compensate for any harm, losses, or legal liability that arises from your event.
Do both members of the couple need to sign a wedding contract?
It’s definitely recommended. Though it’s no fun to think about worst-case scenarios, you want either member of the couple to be able to make changes or terminate a contract if the couple splits up or someone dies. That’s exponentially harder to do if you’re not included in the contract in the first place.
Can I negotiate or ask to have something removed from a contract?
Absolutely! A wedding contract is the summary of an agreement between two parties, and should only be signed once the two parties are in complete agreement of its terms. Discuss the revisions you’d like to see in the contract with your vendor before you give it your signature.