Wedding Details: Contracts 101

Picture this: It’s 8 p.m. at your reception. Dinner has been served and cleared by a small army of waiters, and now the band is playing a set of waltz tunes so your grandparents can show off their moves. The photographer is still snapping, but the videographer has packed up for the night. In the kitchen, waiters are getting ready to serve cake, coffee and tea to your 200 guests.

Why is everything going so smoothly? Because you’re in the hands of professionals, certainly. But also because, weeks and months before this day, you and each of your wedding suppliers—your venue, photographer, band and baker—sat down and went over every detail on paper, and then signed your names on the dotted line.

Contracts are key to making sure you get what you want. They cover you in case of mishaps. And they’re a great way to think through the details of your Big Day before it arrives.

Do Your Homework
Before you ever put pen to paper, know with whom you’re doing business. Shop around. Ask for references and recommendations. Ask venues for suppliers they regularly work with and ask the suppliers about the venues. And talk to a few brides. “Without question, the best referrals come from previous brides,” says Cliff Mautner, photographer and the owner of Cliff Mautner Photography in Philadelphia. “And don’t just ask if you liked the work. Ask what it was like to work with him or her before, during and after the wedding.”

Once you’ve decided on a supplier, get acquainted with him or her—particularly with your photographer, who will be capturing your day forever after, and the musicians, who will be setting the mood at your reception.

If a supplier leaves you with a bad impression at these initial meetings, don’t hesitate to move on. You don’t need the worry of whether the band is going to show up. And once you’ve signed a contract, it’s a little harder to cut the cord.

“If you get bad feelings, you need to back off,” says Mautner. “Go with your gut.”

Read the Contract
After you’ve decided on the perfect baker/florist/venue, you’ll need to sign a contract. It should contain all the basic data—starting with names, addresses, dates and times. The payment schedule should be clearly spelled out. The names of performers and photographers should appear in the document, and the facilities they need should be specified in writing—for the entertainment, in particular. The contracts with the florist and baker should be very specific: How big are the table arrangements? What type of flowers? What colors? How many layers should the cake have? What flavor?

“I don’t rely on chance,” says Deborah Kaplan, owner of SUD Fine Pastry & Cafe in Philadelphia. “I want people to know exactly what they get. I want them to read over the contract and see everything.”

And yes, you should read the contract. Thoroughly. With a highlighter and pen, if need be.

“As stupid as it sounds, most people don’t read the contract, and just sign it,” says Marcia Weiner, a contract lawyer in Wayne. “You want things spelled out as much as possible, particularly for something as nerve-wracking as a wedding.”

If you’re intimidated by the contract or by an odd clause, ask the vendor (or a lawyer) to explain it. The legal jargon may be confusing, so don’t hesitate to ask. The contract is there to assure you, not scare you.

“You need to understand what you’re doing,” says Eddie Bruce, a bandleader and co-owner of Eddie Bruce Entertainment in Philadelphia. “Think of it as a real-estate contract. You’re taking that band off the market for that date, for a year or two in advance. It’s a legal document that you are entering into.”

A cancellation policy should be written into every contract you sign. Make sure you understand it, and ask the vendor to talk you through the exact consequences should you cancel or reschedule your Big Day. Most vendors will charge a fee, particularly if you cancel when the wedding is right around the corner, although they may help you reschedule their services.

Contracts with some suppliers, such as the florist and baker, should be straightforward and may look more like an order form. Prices will be clearly stated—and shouldn’t change after you sign.

Lock In Your Price
Your contract should also establish a payment schedule. Most vendors will break down their fees into three or more payments. At signing, you will probably put down a retainer or a deposit, often one-third of the fee.

A retainer and a deposit are different, though the terms are often used interchangeably. A retainer is meant to hold the vendor for a certain date and is considered part of the payment. A deposit may or may not be considered part of the total—and may or may not be refundable. Make sure you and your vendor agree on what you’re paying.

After the initial payment, you will make the rest of the payments in the weeks before the wedding. Some vendors like to receive checks on the wedding day; others want to be paid before. Either way, the fees—and how you’ll pay them—should be clearly stated.

“Make sure the price is locked in and cannot change,” says Steve Meranus, co-owner of Eddie Bruce Entertainment.

At the same time, make room to be flexible. You may want to keep the band or photographer around for another hour or two, so build a clause into your contract stating the overtime rate.

“If you’ve booked a band for four hours and decide at the reception that you want an extra half-hour, put it in the contract,” Meranus says. “Don’t wait until you’re on the dance floor to try to negotiate.”

Stop Worrying
If you’ve done your homework, read the contract (and understood it) and trust the vendor, you’re all set. Every-thing should flow flawlessly.

At this point, the only thing that can stop a vendor is the “Act of God” clause: serious injury, an earthquake or a fire—anything that would prevent the supplier from performing his or her job. You want to ensure that your vendor will fulfill his or her obligation to you even if this clause needs to kick in.

“Clients ask, ‘What happens if the singer is in a car accident?’” Bruce says. “It’s a good idea to work with a company that has the backup to perform.”

“In the unlikely event of serious personal injury or illness, I substitute a photographer of high qualifications,” Mautner says. “But I’ve never missed a date. You book me, you get me.”

Think of small emergencies too, says Weiner. “There should be a clause in the contract stating what to do if they can’t live up to the full terms of the contract. For example, if you ordered one color flower and they run out, is it OK to substitute another color?

“You shouldn’t have to ask for these clauses to be in the contract,” Weiner says. “They should already be in.” It all comes back to trust. You need to know you’re dealing with a reputable business that can step up to the plate and deliver even if something goes awry.

“There can be a hiccup,” says Bruce. “Everything about a wedding is emotional. You need to know that if something goes wrong, the vendor is going to fix it, and make it right.”