When an engaged couple breaks up before marriage, the emotional devastation is not the only concern. Here's how to manage the financial repercussions
Ashley Aseltine had the ring on her finger, dress in her closet and “save the date” magnets on friends’ fridges.
But seven months before the big day, she didn’t have a fiancé.
“He ended it,” said Aseltine, 31. “It stung. Everything kind of stung for a really long time.”
The December 2013 split ended their 12-year relationship and year-and-a-half engagement. The next weeks were a painful blur during which Aseltine leaned on family and friends for support. Once they were certain she and her ex wouldn’t proceed with their June nuptials, her dad and uncle broke the news to relatives.
Then she got to work, calling the vendors and notifying friends and tucking the ring and the dress away in corners of her apartment. The $600 silk, floor-length gown wouldn’t resurface until three years later when she would run over it with a car, drench it in fake blood and wear it as a costume for a Halloween Zombie walk.
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For soon-to-be brides and grooms who call off their wedding, there’s the immediate heartbreak that comes with losing someone you planned to spend your life with. Then there’s the logistical nightmare of having to unplan one of the most important events of your life — breaking the news to everyone from your grandma to your gynecologist, swallowing lost deposits, fielding prying questions and fighting stigma in the process.
“It almost seems less taboo to get divorced than to call off a wedding,” said Natalia Juarez, a Toronto-based breakup coach.
Whereas some people think, “at least you tried,” when divorce quickly follows nuptials, calling off a wedding entirely is regarded as “giving up too soon,” she said, noting that divorce is also talked about more openly than broken engagements.
Juarez said those who call it off usually feel it was the right decision years later. But she’s spoken with clients who saw red flags, but didn’t want to call off the wedding for fear of letting down their family or spouse-to-be.
“Everyone was so excited they felt like they couldn’t disappoint,” she said. “(Brides and grooms) are emotionally and financially invested and so are their families and social communities.”
Lauren Hughes, owner of Lauren Hughes Events Co. in Toronto, said undoing the hard work that goes into planning a wedding comes with sensitive challenges and a time crunch.
“Things need to be dealt with pretty quickly . . . especially if your invites have gone out,” Hughes said. Though she’s never worked directly with clients who called off their wedding, she recommends that couples splitting immediately enlist a close friend or family member to serve as an event un-planner. Then, unless the couple goes the formal route of sending out cancellation cards, that designated person should start making calls.
“They want to keep it short and to the point. Sweet and simple,” said Hughes of the script the event un-planner should stick to when calling invitees. “You really don’t want to have that (person) be burdened with having to give a lot of gory details . . . It’s not their job and it’s really not people’s business, to be honest.”
Then comes dealing with the financial blows.
“You have a lot of deposits that are typically not refundable,” said Rebecca Chan, owner of Rebecca Chan Weddings and Events in Toronto.
Chan said vendors, including the photographer, venue, hairstylist, wedding planner, band and florist, typically require a prepaid non-refundable deposit of between 30 to 50 per cent of their total fee. This means unless a couple can come up with a creative alternative — Chan knows of one man who hosted a New Year’s Eve party at the venue where he was to be married — they may be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars. Gifts should also be returned, she said
When Vancouverite Elizabeth Billig called off her 2015 nuptials five months before her wedding date, she lost hundreds of dollars on deposits for the photographer and officiant. She didn’t want to lose her big day too.
“Whatever I did that day, I was going to remember it for the rest of my life,” said Billig, 29. “And I wanted it to be amazing.”
On the day she was to be married, April 22, Billig hosted a wedding-themed party at her apartment. She wore the wedding dress she’d bought in Miami, drank champagne and played wedding-inappropriate songs, such as “Love Stinks.” Thirty of her friends attended, bringing cigars, booze and even a vibrator as gifts. She held a bottle of her favourite bourbon in the air as she cut into a cake with “Happy Wedding or Whatever” written on it.
“It was like a birthday party times a thousand,” she said with a smile. “I had the best day of my life — genuinely.”
As for Aseltine, she looks back on her breakup without anger or regret. She’s now friends with her ex. They play on the same softball team.
But dismantling her wedding was frustrating — and pricey. Her friends encouraged her to put the money from the couple’s Jack and Jill party toward recouping lost deposits for key elements, such as the venue and the photographer, but she still ended up more than $3,000 out of pocket.
The ring, she kept. Her ex never asked for it back.
“There’s so much that I’ve thrown out or gotten rid of that had to do with our relationship,” said Aseltine, for whom the “small and simple” piece of jewelry served as a token of what they shared. “It was a really important relationship . . . I don’t want to forget that.”
What to do with . . .
Dismantling wedding plans can be tough. To help minimize stress, industry professionals offer these tips for what to do with each element of unplanning.
The dress: You could sell it, donate it or burn it, Juarez said. She also knows some women who saved their dress and wore it when they married someone else. As for returns, ask the store about their policies, but if it’s been altered, you typically can’t send it back.
The venue: See if the venue will refund your deposit or renegotiate their cancellation policy. If they won’t budge, suggest an alternative use for the space, such as a party. You could also try to find someone else to take over the space on a site, such as Kijiji or Craigslist, but vendors can be strict about making changes.
The ring: Under Ontario law, an engagement ring would be treated as a gift that is conditional upon the marriage taking place, said Jason Murphy, a family law lawyer based in Collingwood. That means regardless of who called off the wedding, the ring should legally be returned to the person who gifted it, he said.
The photographer: If the photographer has a no-refund policy, ask about repurposing the booking to take photos of friends, or headshots of you, Juarez suggested.
The flowers: If you’re going to lose your deposit, consider alternative uses for your flowers. One idea is to send flowers to the friends who helped you get through the tough times, Juarez said.
The alcohol: Drink it. Not all at once. With cases of wine on hand, you may never have to go to the liquor store again. Or go the sensible route and try to return them.
The gifts: If possible, return the gifts to those who gave them, Hughes said. If you’ve opened the gift, proper etiquette would be to offer the gift-giver the equivalent monetary value, she said. However, some friends may want you to put those gifts and money toward starting your new life, as Aseltine’s friends encouraged her to do.
The future: Surround yourself with a solid support network, Hughes said. Practise radical self-love and self-care, grieve and move forward with your life, Juarez said.
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