Although weddings are dreamy affairs, their preparation involves plenty of down-to-earth paperwork -- namely, the contracts with the vendors you'll hire to carry out your vision. These legal agreements will explicitly state the terms and conditions of the work to be done, keeping misunderstandings to a minimum.

Formal Contracts

Many wedding services supply formal contracts that have been drawn up by their lawyers. Don't be put off by the obscure language; although you can always pay to have your own lawyer look over a contract, if you take the time to read it carefully, you should be able to decode the legalese yourself. Make sure you read every line and understand every nuance -- even the simplest phrases such as "and/or" ("red and/or white wine" is too vague if you want both) and "above" (it could refer to the previous line or to an item in paragraph one). If you're unsure of anything, ask the vendor to explain -- something he's probably accustomed to doing.

It helps to create a detailed list of important points from your perspective (for the band, for example, arrival and break times, transportation costs, and attire) to compare to the contract provided by the vendor. Then you can request appropriate changes to the document.

Informal Contracts

Some vendors, especially those with small businesses, may draft a handwritten agreement or use a simple proposal as the contract. You don't need a long, complicated contract as long as the terms are precisely defined and clearly stated.

Contract Basics

Every contract should cover basic points, including the most obvious: the date and time of the wedding. In fact, you'll probably see the phrase "time is of the essence," signifying that the date of the contracted service is an essential part of the agreement. The contract must also list the vendor's fee and a breakdown of the costs. Some contracts have a price-escalation clause, which allows for unforeseen expenses. If you can't get the clause deleted, insert a ceiling on the total costs; no more than 15 percent over the base price is fair. The contract should also record the terms of payment; typically, vendors ask for a 50 percent deposit upon signing, with the balance due shortly before or on the day of the wedding.

Signing and Making Changes

Once you have agreed on a contract, both you and the vendor need to sign it. You'll want a copy for your files with both signatures, too, because otherwise the document can be challenged should there be a disagreement later. Don't hesitate to make changes -- the vendors want to do business with you, so they'll probably be as accommodating as possible -- but if you agree on changes midway though the planning, follow up with a letter signed by both parties, and keep a copy of the letter with the original contract.

Refund Policy

A contract should detail the refund policy if the company doesn't fulfill its end of the bargain. To protect against a no-show or a company's sudden demise, consider paying in installments by credit card, so you have a chance of getting your credit-card company to dispute the charges if necessary. A contract can also describe the circumstances under which you get a refund if you cancel the plans. While it's unlikely you'll get your full deposit back, you may not have to pay the entire bill if you have an agreement. The more you can anticipate, the more peace of mind you'll have as the wedding approaches.

The Caterer

Specify the kind of meal (lunch or dinner, buffet or seated); the number of courses and size of the portions; what beverages will be served; the size and style of dishes and glassware; and whether the wedding cake is included in the price. Also discuss the size of the serving staff, and ask about overtime charges, taxes, and whether gratuities are included.

Because catering a wedding takes so much coordination, you may see a contract clause enforcing the "one week" rule, meaning you must finalize all details seven days prior to the event or incur extra fees. Another item to look for is liability insurance. While most midsize to large companies carry their own insurance, small vendors may not -- in which case you may want to add a rider to your existing homeowners or renter's policy.

The Florist

A contract with the florist should spell out the number of bouquets, boutonnieres, centerpieces, and corsages on order, as well as any decoration for the ceremony and reception locations. Discuss charges for accessories, such as an aisle runner, ribbons, and vases. You should also list any particular flowers you want, allowing for the possibility of substitutions by specifying your second choices. But it's best to leave the specifics up to the florist -- something he will undoubtedly want written into the contract.

The Musicians

Any contract for music -- whether you are using a band or a disc jockey -- should record the time of arrival and departure. It's a good idea to state who has the authority to let the music go into overtime, so you're not suddenly charged for an extra hour thanks to the well-intentioned initiative of some exuberant guests. You can also specify particular songs, the duration of sets, and whether prerecorded music will be played during the breaks. Be sure to specify the names of the musicians who will be there. You probably hired particular performers because you liked what you heard at another event or on a demo tape, and you don't want to discover at the last minute that the lead singer's cousin is filling in.

Hairstylists and Makeup Artists

As with the musicians, specify the name of the artist you are booking. Also include the number of people the stylist is taking care of, and whether she'll stay to do post-ceremony touch-ups.

The Photographer

These contracts should state how long the photographer or videographer will spend covering the event; what she'll wear; your preference for black-and-white, color, or both; and your choice of formal portraits, candid shots, or a combination. It should also detail what is included in the total fee -- which albums and how many prints for the photographer, how many videos and the editing cost and style for the videographer, and the cost of materials, hotel stays, and any other extras -- and when you can expect to receive the finished product. Some experts advise you not to pay a photographer or videographer in full until you see and approve the final result.

The Rental Company

Contracts for rental items such as tables and chairs need to state the time and date of delivery and retrieval. If you don't arrange for same-day or next-morning pickup, you may be charged a fee by the reception site.

The Car and Driver

A contract for a car to transport the couple or guests from one location to another can cover matters from the fiscal, such as tolls and parking fees, to the stylistic, including the make and color of the car, amenities inside the vehicle, and the attire of the driver.

The Dressmaker/Tuxedo Rental Shop

Don't overlook the making or fitting of your own wedding attire. To be sure the bride's dress will be done on time and there won't be any charges for extra fittings or fabric, get it in writing. The groom should have his details -- the style of his tux and shirt, and the size of his shoes written down in a contract, too.


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