Navigating your Contract


By Mary Ellen Reihsen, J.D.

There is no industry more emotionally charged, or time sensitive, than the meetings, weddings and events industry. By far, the most important step you can take to maintain good relations and manage expectations, is to have a pleasantly worded, clear but thorough, client contract. A well worded contract will accomplish many things for you and your business. Obviously, it lays out what services you will be providing to clients, but it also gives you an opportunity to draw a line in the sand by making clear what services you won’t provide or when additional costs will be applied. Probably most importantly, a good contract will meet all the legal expectations in the state where you conduct your business. If things do go wrong, and you find yourself standing in front of a judge, you want to know ahead of time that your contract says all the things that limit your liability in your state.

Planning an event can get complicated if there are too many cooks in the kitchen, or too many family members trying to participate in the planning process. It is important to know that your relationship is legally with whomever you entered into the contract, meaning whoever is signing the client contract. Frequently when weddings are being planned, parents want to contribute money and input. In messier situations, parents will contribute the money and sign the contract. Now everyone is a party to the contract with legal authority and the right to potentially sue. Like I said, messy. I recommend that my planners only allow the couples to sign the client contracts. Be friendly but firm that the couple is the only party that you will correspond with or take direction from, and the couple is responsible for paying the fees regardless of where the money originates.

Planners face a slightly different issue when working with a corporate client. Often, the actual client is the business, a non-natural person. In these cases, I advise planners to do their best to make sure the point of contact, or the person signing the documents, is someone within the organization that has some power over the budget and the authority to make decisions. Ideally, you’ll be working with someone who holds an executive position within the company.

In the client contracts that I write, I always lay out a very clear payment schedule and make clear that all the payments are absolutely nonrefundable. It fact, I don’t even use the word deposit since that word implies they have the opportunity to get that money back. I call the payments “date reservation fees” because that’s really what they are and why you get to keep them. A Saturday in June is a valuable thing to a planner; you are being paid an incremental fee to reserve that date for your client’s special day and services. The client makes payments on the date reservation because it will become increasingly hard for a planner to turn around and make money off of a day if there is a cancellation. A nonrefundable deposit can be found unenforceable if it is determined to be a punishment for a client canceling. It’s important that planners understand, and be able to explain, that the date reservation fee is something you get to keep in order to make you legally whole when you have the lost opportunity to make your fee on another event.

Executing an event can be complicated. Frequently, as things are happening, your client is either unavailable or you just don’t want to stress them out. It’s important that you always have the authority to make sure your events go well. I routinely include provisions in my planner’s contracts that give them discretionary power to deal with unexpected issues that inevitably come up. Stating clearly that you will have discretionary power to make decisions, and spend a reasonable amount of money, can make all the difference. For example, you will want the authority to decide to bring in additional employees to work on an event if something has happened that requires extra labor. You don’t want to have to debate bringing in extra labor if you know it will be the difference between your event, with your name attached to it, being a success or a failure. You also want the power to spend money on reasonable problem-solving measures. If a flower girl’s dress tears, or a case of wine breaks, or whatever else, you want to be able to make the decision to fix the problem. You can work with your couple in advance to make sure they are comfortable with your discretionary power by putting a spending cap on the problem solve, and always agreeing to inform them whenever possible. Your couples will thank you for your foresight into problems that can occur, and your plan for addressing those issues in advance. Better still, you will have contractual authority to spend some problem-solving money, and you won’t be in the position of spending your own money and not being able to get reimbursed by your clients.


Mary Ellen Reihsen is a business attorney focusing on the legal needs of companies in the wedding and events industry.

Mary Ellen worked for five years in a large national law firm doing corporate and employment law work, but always knew she wanted to get back to her roots in the events world. While working her way through law school, Mary Ellen was a high-end caterer, where she personally experienced many of the legal nuances that apply to time-sensitive and emotionally charged world of weddings and events.

Mary Ellen works with hundreds of businesses, of every variety, in the weddings and events industry providing services in the areas of: formation and corporate documents; all manner of client contracts; employment law issues; compliance; mergers & acquisitions; creative tech start-up consulting; hospitality law consultations; legal guidance on disaster planning and preparedness; guidance on working with various tribal laws in Washington State; and online privacy legal consulting. Mary Ellen is an active participant in MPI, WNUSA, and NACE. Mary Ellen is also a longtime member, and the 2017 President-elect, of ILEA’s Seattle Chapter. Mary Ellen speaks, both locally and nationally, on a variety of legal topics impacting the weddings and events industry: agreements for every occasion; employment law issues; changing laws impacting online activities and sales {this is a big one}; cannabis and events; etc. Mary Ellen has offices in Seattle and Minneapolis, but represents clients across the country.

“I love my job. I love my clients. I want to be the
wedding and event industry’s attorney.”


Managing Attorney
Weddings & Events Law
Seattle & Minneapolis
155 NE 100th Street, Suite 205
Seattle, WA 98125
Direct (206) 489-3826
Cell (612) 730-3486
Fax (206) 973-8737