Frank Dariano and Sharon Mensah had planned to marry on July 5, with 50 guests in attendance, at a resort in Banff National Park in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada. But they canceled the wedding shortly after shelter-in-place orders were issued in San Jose, Calif., their hometown. “Our plans really went south as the pandemic started cracking down on international travel,” said Mr. Dariano, an administrative assistant at an outpatient rehabilitation center in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Things got even worse when their venue refused to refund their $8,300 deposit. “We didn’t feel it was right to lose our deposit when no services had been rendered,” said Ms. Mensah, 36, a high school therapist in Sunnyvale. When pleading with the venue led to a dead end, the couple consulted a lawyer in Canada, who reviewed their contract and negotiated with the resort for a full refund.
“Our lawyer helped us identify a gray area in our contract and gave us a leg to stand on, and we managed to get our deposit back,” Mr. Dariano, 33, said. “But it’s sad we had to hire a lawyer.” On July 25, the couple had a small wedding ceremony in San Jose with their immediate family.
Many couples have wrestled with a vendor over receiving a refund or a credit after the coronavirus crisis derailed their wedding plans. But there are steps you can take to arrive at a solution that’s fair for both parties.
Read the Fine Print
Before asking for a refund, review your contract, paying close attention to the agreement’s termination section, said Joyce Scardina Becker, a wedding planner and designer at Events of Distinction in San Francisco. Many wedding contracts — but not all — contain a force majeure clause that allows either party to terminate the agreement if an event of nature (or an “act of God”), such as a hurricane, or an act by a third party, such as a strike or terrorist attack, has made it impossible for the parties to meet their obligations.
The caveat: A pandemic is “not necessarily a force majeure event of and by itself,” Ms. Becker said. But a cancellation because of a government order to shelter in place, for example, or a ban on public gatherings, would qualify, she said.
Consider the Vendor’s Position
“The pandemic has been brutal for the wedding industry,” said Lucy Cuneo, a wedding photographer based in Charleston, S.C., and “rightly or wrongly, the great majority of vendors would never be in a position to return all their deposits.”
Although Ms. Cuneo said she was able to rebook all of her 2020 clients who bumped their wedding date to 2021, “we have taken a large financial hit because we cannot rebook dates with new clients and are feeling the brunt of that now.”
As a small-business owner, Sarah Kaplan, 31, and the founder of the jewelry company VUE by SEK based in Charlotte, N.C., empathized with her vendors when she and her fiancé, William Grantham, 32, an investment analyst in Charlotte, rescheduled their April wedding in Lancaster, S.C., to October. Their new wedding date worked for all their vendors except the photographer, who was unavailable and refused to refund the couple’s $3,000 deposit. But the photographer offered the couple a $3,000 credit, which they plan to use to take professional photos in their wedding attire on a different day.
If possible, Ms. Cuneo encourages couples to request that a vendor provide an alternative service — a post-pandemic family photo session, for example — instead of a return of their deposit.
Gaurav Anand, the owner of GA Catering in Manhattan, is allowing couples to receive a credit from their deposit if they decide to cancel their wedding this year that they can apply toward catering a different event such as an anniversary party. Couples “must understand the amount of time and effort it takes to pull off a catering job,” Mr. Anand said. “We have site visits, tastings, menu creations, staff assignments, special setups, etc., that require personalized attention and time, and we hold dates and prebook our staff for those dates.”
If a Vendor Is Acting in Bad Faith
David Berke, a lawyer and the founder of eWed Insurance, said most vendors are trying to accommodate customers who have been forced to cancel or postpone their weddings this year. But he acknowledged that some businesses are not fulfilling their contractual obligations.
For couples who fear that’s the case, Mr. Berke suggested a few strategies:
Write a review of the company online. Wedding businesses thrive — or fail — based on their reputation.
Dispute the charge with your credit card company. If you paid a deposit using a credit card, enlist your creditor to help recoup your money.
Hire a lawyer. This should be a last resort, but it’s necessary in some cases.
Teresa Crippen, 30, and James Ramirez, 37, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., had planned to wed at a conservation center in Philadelphia on May 29, but the coronavirus outbreak forced the venue to shut down temporarily. The center’s in-house caterer gave the couple the option to rebook, but it only offered them morning and midweek wedding dates before March 1, 2021 to choose from. The caterer turned down the couple’s request for a later date. “We offered to put down another $2,000 for May 29, 2021 and they said no,” said Mr. Ramirez, a product engineer for a home building company in San Luis Obispo.
The caterer offered to refund the couple $2,000 of their $12,000 deposit, but based on the language in their contract Ms. Crippen and Mr. Ramirez believed the were owed a full refund. “The stress of having our caterer holding our money hostage, coupled with everything that’s going on with the pandemic itself, has been a lot to cope with,” Mr. Ramirez said.
So the couple decided to hire Nicholas Sandercock, a lawyer who focuses on wedding contract law at Gross McGinley, a law firm in Allentown, Pa., who, upon reviewing their contract, wrote a demand letter to the caterer asking for a full refund. In response, the caterer refused to refund their money. The couple said they are now preparing to file a lawsuit.
“It’s in everyone’s best interests to avoid litigation because litigation gets expensive,” said Mr. Sandercock, who said he charges a fee of $500 to $1,000 to examine a wedding contract, review communications between a couple and their vendor, and draft a demand letter.