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Calling It Off : Etiquette Q&A

Besides the emotional fallout, there are logistical issues to take care of when a wedding gets called off. Here's what you'll need to expect.

Q. How do we let everyone know the wedding isn't going to happen?

A. If invitations have not yet gone out, a printed card should be sent out to the guests, worded similarly to the invitations:
Mr. and Mrs. Scott Dixon
announce that the marriage of
their daughter
Barbara Marie
to
Howard Franklin
will not take place

If the invitations have already gone out and/or there's no time to get a written explanation to guests, someone needs to call everyone on the guest list and let them know that the wedding will not take place. Obviously the bride and groom may be too traumatized to take care of this; parents, siblings, attendants, or other friends and family members should help out.

Q. Do we have to explain why we're not getting married?

A. No -- simply letting guests know there will be no wedding is enough at this point. There will be plenty of time later to confide in family and friends about the situation.

Q. But what if people keep asking me what happened?

A. If people keep asking you about it after you've made it clear you don't want to talk about it, they're the ones in the wrong. You never have to explain to anyone if you don't want to. If you keep getting pestered, have a close friend or family member talk to the person and tell them they really need to stop because they're upsetting you.

Q. Who gets the engagement ring?

A. This question is more complicated than it seems, because each situation is so different. If the bride calls off the wedding and her ring was a gift from the groom, it's appropriate for her to give it back. If the groom calls it off, the bride may want to give him his ring back because she does not want to be reminded of their failed engagement. (If he was a real jerk, though, we can't argue against taking it to the pawn shop.) If the ring is a family heirloom, it should go back to the family it came from, regardless of why the wedding was canceled. If the couple bought the ring together, they need to decide what to do with it, as they would with any other joint purchases they've made.

For the legal deal on rings, we turned to Caroline Krauss-Browne, an attorney in the matrimonial department at Tenzer Greenblatt LLP, in New York City. Note however, that laws differ state to state. "In accepting the ring, the bride-to-be promises her hand in marriage. So long as she is willing to fulfill her promise, she has given consideration for contract. So if he breaks it off, she can keep the ring," Caroline explains. "But if she breaks off the engagement, she signifies that she is no longer willing to keep the promise, and in this case, she should not retain benefit from the agreement (the ring)." If the ring cost less than $2,000, Caroline says that a small-claims court is a fine forum to air your grievance. (Check small-claims limits in your locale.) But, Caroline maintains, "If the ring were an heirloom of extraordinary value, the laws of equity would probably override in a situation like that." But for the legal specifics of your state, consult with a local attorney.

Q. Can wedding insurance help?

A. Sorry, no dice. Wedding insurance can be your best friend in the event of cancellation or postponement (due to weather conditions, sudden death in the family, illness, natural disaster, etc.), but "not when the cause is a change of heart," confirms a spokesperson for Weddingsurance -- (800) ENGAGED.

Q. Do we have to return the gifts?

A. You are supposed to return all the engagement, shower, and wedding gifts you've received -- even presents that have been personalized (e.g., monogrammed) -- to the guests who sent them. If you've used any of the gifts (cooking-related products, towels, etc.), it's okay not to send them back, but everything else should go. Include a note thanking the guest again for their kindness. (Some guests may insist that you keep their gift, and if they do, you graciously should accept.) You may feel like it's unfair that you have to give up all your presents -- especially if you were not the one to call off the wedding. But look at it this way: They would only remind you of a wedding that didn't happen, right?

Q. What do we do about the dress?

A. We asked Michelle Roth for Michelle Roth & Co. in New York City to undress the options. "When you order your wedding dress and accessories from a bridal salon, the outfits are often backed by your binding signature to a non-refundable, water-tight contract," she explains. "Remember, you are not the first bride to cancel her wedding dress order -- professional bridal salons have dealt with this issue before. However unpleasant, keep a perspective on the fact that a dress can be canceled and unraveled much more easily than complications in your life." Michelle recommends having a family member make your arrangements for you, if the situation is too raw.

Some ways to make the best of discarding the dress:

  • Cancellation Policy: Ask if the special order dress has been cut yet. If not, you might be able to negotiate a cancellation fee.
  • Sample Sales: If the bridal shop is having a sample sale anytime soon, ask the manager to put your dress on sale. Agree to a minimum price and make it unbeatable, so you can cut your losses and put closure to the situation.
  • Consignment Shops: They may enable you to recover some of your investment. Check their policies, and make sure you are in constant contact with the shop you've chosen -- this will help keep your dress top-of-mind with the consultants.
  • Charity Donation: You can obtain a well-deserved tax deduction while doing something great for a person in need.

Q. The honeymoon, too?

A. Unless you requested a waiver (a fee you pay in advance which exonerates you from all or some of the cancellation fees up until 24 hours before the departure date) from the cruiseline or tour office you booked your holiday with, you're up a creek. Cancellation fees can price at one hundred percent of the cost. Travel insurance is a safety net in most circumstances, but according to Bob Chambers of CSA Travel Protection, "We aren't able to provide coverage if there is a change of heart." Bob advises always knowing what the cancellation fees are before booking the travel arrangements, and always ask about waivers. Penalty fees are usually subject to the amount of notice given (3 months vs. 3 days makes a big difference).

Q. What if the guests already made travel arrangements?

A. If you set up the hotel block for everyone, call the hotel (or have someone close to you do it) and explain the situation. Honesty is definitely the best policy here (don't try to make up a story about why you need to cancel your block). Read your hotel cancellation policy—some hotels may require a few months' notice—then work with them to see what they can do for you and your guests. When it comes to flights, it's a little trickier. It's inconvenient, but your guests need to call the airline to work something out. They may get credit to change their flight and/or destination to use on their next vacation.

Q. Will we be able to get refunds on deposits?

A. That depends on how diligent you've been about your vendor contracts and how close to the wedding date the cancellation happens. Good contracts have a refund policy -- i.e., you should be able to get back a certain percentage of any deposits you made if the party is canceled by a certain date. The closer it is to the actual wedding date, the less likely you are to get your money back -- establishments and other wedding professionals are simply protecting their own business.

If there's nothing in the contract you signed about a refund policy, you may be out of luck. Check out our contract points for details.