Talk to any room full of wedding professionals, and you'll likely get a hundred pieces of expert legal advice. This post is not intended to jump into that bottomless pool. More so, it's intended to share some thought-provoking commentary on things we've overheard. *Here's the disclaimer* We're not attorneys, nor do we play attorneys on TV. This conversation is not considered to be legal advice. Legal precedent changes from region to region and state to state and for some of you, country to country. We highly recommend that you meet with an attorney in your location to create legally binding agreements that work for your business model and the services you offer. Someone with knowledge of the wedding industry wouldn't be a bad idea either. With weddings shutting down across the country because of COVID-19, wildfires, and hurricanes, it might be a good time to really look at how we protect ourselves and solidify our contracts.
Retainer vs. Deposit
By definition, a retainer is a fee that's paid to hold goods or services. On the other hand, a deposit is a payment towards goods or services, usually given back once the goods or services have been acquired.
Think of it this way, a retainer is paid to have you shoot Allen and David's wedding. You have agreed on a specific price, services to be provided, and agree to show up on their wedding date and provide said services. It implies that you're holding that date and not booking a bigger, more profitable wedding. In essence, you're turning away business because you're holding that date for their wedding.
Deposit, on the other hand, might be like the security deposit to have your electrical services turned on. You pay a deposit, they turn on your electricity, you pay your bills on time, and don't smash up their meter. When you move, you get back the deposit as long as your account is all paid up.
With weddings, in a majority of cases, we're not taking a deposit. The exception might be a cleaning deposit of a venue. Some municipalities own historic venues, and while you pay a site fee, you might also have to pay a deposit to make sure that you, hosting the event, clean up the place.
Most professionals will tell you that a retainer is the appropriate language. And including "non-refundable" might not be a bad idea.
All Payments Are Considered Earned
More and more wedding professionals seem to be breaking down their charges into smaller payments. Not only does it make payments more manageable for clients, but it usually helps the business's cash flow. However, suppose you're taking those payments, but most of what you provide is for the wedding day. If the couple cancels, we've heard of cases where they want their money back for those payments.
Make sure your agreement specifies that all payments made are considered earned and non-refundable. Especially if you're creating budgets, planning timelines, sourcing professionals, and fielding calls all through the planning process.
How Safe Do You Feel?
One of our team members had a conversation with the owner of a photography studio. She and her entire team were women, and on more than one occasion, were put in very uncomfortable situations, especially with groomsmen who might've been over-served. The photographer decided that for the team's protection, a clause reading something to the effect of "ever feels unsafe, or physically or verbally abused." It was an out clause for going to the client, who usually stopped any issues. However, after that conversation, they had the right to pack up and go—something we generally don't want on our wedding day. But the conversation applies to current situations where guests might be removing masks and not social distancing. The inclusion of anything that's considered against the law or potentially harmful might be worth discussing with your legal counsel.
According to Wikipedia, "Force Majeure is a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, epidemic or an event described by the legal term act of God, prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract."
There's been a lot of chatter about whether or not COVID-19 shutdowns are covered by a typical Force Majeure when there's phased reopening. For example, what if the couple is legally allowed to host a wedding of a specific size. But the wedding professional has health issues that may put them at risk. Or at least make them uncomfortable working at that time.
One wedding planner we spoke to had her agreements tuned up several years ago by a former client who's a legal professional. The attorney, ironically, put in a clause that covered airborne illnesses. Who knew?
Initials, Signatures, & Red Lines
We're amazed by the number of times pros have had clients with issues commenting that they never really read the agreement. They just skimmed over them and signed. Okay—not really surprised! However, we've heard suggestions that for important clauses like model releases, to use images. Non-refundable retainers and Force Majeure might best be highlighted by requiring them to be initialed. Initialing at the bottom of each page can help clarify that they at least saw that page.
Another conversation started surrounding redlining agreements. A term that applies to a potential client striking though portions of a contract with a red pen. Most wedding and event pros comment that this happens most frequently when the client is a newbie lawyer or still in law school. The bigger conversation might be what you, as a business owner, are comfortable with changing on your contract. One pro we spoke with commented that the only clause they would allow to be removed was permission to obtain and use the couple's images on their website and marketing materials. Essentially, adding in a non-disclosure agreement. While it's not ideal for marketing your business, it's actually pretty common in the wedding and events industry.
It boils down to a few simple things at the end of all of the non-legally binding conversations with wedding and event pros. As professionals, we hope that people understand and value what we bring to the table. We should do the same and search out reputable legal advice in our own jurisdiction to protect us and our businesses. When was the last time you had your contracts reviewed by an attorney?
Hero photo courtesy: Stetten Wilson