Don’t Let a Wedding Scam (or Breach of Contract) Ruin Your Big Day

Imagine the shock of discovering that your wedding venue has unexpectedly shut down, your photographer is a no-show, or your "designer" gown is actually a shoddy counterfeit shipped from China. These scenarios are more common than you'd think, leaving couples financially (and emotionally) devastated in their wake. Here's what to do in case the unthinkable happens, as well as precautions you can take to safeguard yourselves in the first place.

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Photo Credit: Infinite Pixels by Angel Photography

What to Do When a Venue Shuts Down or a Vendor Doesn't Show Up

Mark Schondorf, Attorney at Hecht & Seidman, LLC:

"If a couple doesn't have the real contact information or identity of a vendor, they can try to have the charge canceled or reversed by calling their bank. If they submitted a check, then the account number should be available online, depending on the bank. A lawsuit will allow the party to subpoena such bank records to try and track the fraudulent party down. If they are an entity, such as an LLC or a corporation, the Secretary of State will usually have some identifying information in paperwork that has been filed, sometimes on the state's website.

A couple can initiate a lawsuit for a breach of contract (which means that the vendors didn't do what they were supposed to do) or fraud (they took your money and never intended to do the work at all). They can either hire an attorney or try to file a lawsuit themselves. In some states, attorneys aren't allowed in small claim cases. Consult the court in the county where the agreement was made or supposed to be performed, which will often have self-help assistance on how to file a claim without an attorney.

Gather as much documentation as possible, including all communications with the vendor from the very beginning. Print out emails and save text messages as screenshots. Couples should also retain a copy of all promotional items (websites, brochures,  advertisements, etc.), which will help prove the misrepresentations made. Most importantly, all documents showing the financial transactions between the parties (i.e. bank records, receipts, and canceled checks) will be vital to any claim.

The length of the process depends on the allegation amount, the system the court has in place, and whether or not the fraudulent contractors respond to the lawsuit. Some states, like California, have a small claims process that resembles what you would see on a TV judge show. The evidence rules are relaxed: You get one shot to show up and present your case, and a judge will make a decision rather quickly. This process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months, whereas a full-blown lawsuit (usually more than $10,000) can take well over a year. If you win, you'll get a judgment, which you then have to collect on, but how long it will take to turn that into monetary compensation depends on whether the fraudulent contractor has any funds they can seize."

Cody Emerson, Attorney at Emerson Law:

If the couple hires a vendor/supplier to perform a service or provide some product, and they back out at the last minute (or at all), forcing the bride and groom to hire another company, then they could potentially recover the difference in cost between the breaching contractor and the replacement. For example, if the vendor was contracted to provide tables and chairs for the wedding, and they call the week before to inform the couple they will be unable to do so, then they would have to rush to find a backup supplier who could provide the same quality and type of goods. If the couple is charged with a $500 rush fee, that then's something they could also recoup from the breaching vendor.

If the vendor just never showed up, then the bride and groom would need to provide testimony — along with other people from the wedding — stating that the company failed to honor their contractual agreement. You would also need the new contract to show the replacement price paid to the backup vendor.

Also, some contracts have an attorney's fee provision stating that the prevailing party in any litigation under the contract will be entitled to have their legal fees paid by the losing party. So, the couple could potentially recoup their attorney's costs if they prevail in the case.

What to Do if You're Unsatisfied With the Product or Service

Cody Emerson, Attorney at Emerson Law:

"The legal path that couples need to take depends on the nature of the contract, but generally, they would be filing a small claims action (if the contested amount is less than $5,000) or a complaint in Circuit Court for breach of contract. They would be suing to recover all of the money they expended. If the bride and groom did receive some service from the vendor/supplier, then the other party could potentially file a counter-petition for a set-off, requesting the amount be reduced by the value of the services provided. If the couple used or kept non-conforming goods, then the vendor could ask for a set-off in this case as well.

If a couple is unsatisfied with a product, they should immediately contact the supplier in writing to express their dissatisfaction and request a refund. I dealt with a situation where a couple ordered about 300 decorative plates as party favors for their guests. It cost my client about $250 just to have the package shipped to them. When they contacted the vendor, they were willing to issue a refund but refused to pay for the return shipping. However, the product they received was non-conforming to what they had ordered — the color of the plates in the pictures was red, but the ones that got sent to them were blue. Therefore, it's considered a breach of the sales contract and, potentially, fraud. The seller should be responsible for 'making the buyer whole' (putting them in the same position had the goods been conforming), thereby covering the cost of shipping the plates back.

In addition to collecting letters, emails, texts, etc. from the breaching vendor/supplier, I always advise clients to take pictures and even video of non-conforming goods. You'll also want to capture photos of the replacement products as well.

A contract dispute case could take anywhere from one month to a year or more. It depends on the litigation, discovery process, and whether or not the vendor/supplier has legal representation. If you can't find a physical body to be served by a process server once the case has been filed, then you could spend ten years looking for someone to sue. The couple should always get up-to-date contact information from a potential vendor/supplier, along with where they are incorporated. You can look up the company's incorporation status online. Most states have a department of business website that allows you to see when it started, who owns it, and the physical address of its registered agent (the actual person you have to serve in any lawsuit against that entity)."

Next: Getting back on track with the wedding plans ►

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