Do You Refund Deposit For Cancelled Wedding?

Discussion in 'Wedding and Event' started by green_photog, Jun 7, 2012.

  1. A bride booked me a year ago, I did their e session and they loved the photos. Now, she says the wedding is cancelled and asked if they can have some of their deposit back. To me, if a deposit is refundable on cancellation, then it's not really a deposit. Also, I turned down at least 5 inquires for her date after I signed her.
    The only selfish reason that I'm thinking about giving her deposit back is that I know she's a college student and I book a lot of brides from that college based on word of mouth. So if I give her her money back, it might lead to future bookings.
    I also don't want to keep her deposit "on file" because my prices have gone up so if she wants to re-book, I won't honor the old low prices anymore.
     
  2. No. You have turned down paying work and have no guarantee that another job will come up on that date. If properly described in your contract, the money she paid you is a retainer, not a deposit. A deposit is a down payment on a service and it can be argued that it should be returned if the service was never provided (I'm not a lawyer, so I will defer to those who are). But a retainer is a fee someone pays for you to guarantee to hold the date open. By turning down other jobs on that date, you have already provided the service.
     
  3. But a retainer is a fee someone pays for you to guarantee to hold the date open. By turning down other jobs on that date, you have already provided the service.​
    However, if you then accept work for that date and take another retainer, should you not pay back the original retainer because you are then no longer available?
    If you keep a retainer you should be available right up to the agreed date.
     
  4. "Green" said:
    "Now, she says the wedding is cancelled and asked if they can have some of their deposit back. To me, if a deposit is refundable on cancellation, then it's not really a deposit. Also, I turned down at least 5 inquires for her date after I signed her."​
    Problematic phrase in what you said: "To me...." Sorry, not what matters. What matters is what your contract says. Surely your contract states explicitly that the deposit is non-refundable? If so, then this is what she knows, too, and you can politely refer her to the contract she signed. If you want to you can (briefly) explain that you've turned down several weddings on that date because you were already booked.
    I believe that some wedding photographers will refund all or part of the deposit sort of on their own initiative, if they are able to book another wedding on the cancelation date.

    My daughter is getting married in December. We just signed the contract for the band. Contract says that payment in full will be required even in the event of cancelation. My wife and I had a private talk in which we asked ourselves, what are the odds of our daughter and her fiancé calling the wedding off? IN our case we decided those odds are close to zero; they're good kids, both of them, and they've been together for several years. So we're not going to lose sleep over this. But we know that, God forbid something does happen, we're going to be on the hook for the band's fee. Maybe we'll have 'em come over to the house and play for us privately.
    It's really important to go over the contract — including the painful parts — with the client at the start, when the client really likes you. Make sure they truly understand it. We're not selling used cars here, where all we want to do is take the client's cash, and we can afford to let the lawyers deal with any problems that arise later on.

    Will
     
  5. Steve Smith writes:
    However, if you then accept work for that date and take another retainer, should you not pay back the original retainer because you are then no longer available? If you keep a retainer you should be available right up to the agreed date.​
    Morally or practically speaking, this seems very reasonable. Actually I don't think I've ever thought about it this way. It's a very fair point.
    However, I am not sure it's a good point of law, if that matters. If the contract has been canceled and/or breached (say, bride fails to make remaining payments prior to the wedding date as she agreed to do in the contract), then the photographer is released from his or her duty to perform. You can keep the deposit (a) because, presumably, that was a term of the contract and (b) the deposit refunds you for lost opportunity cost.
    What this means is: Assuming the contract did in fact expressly state that the deposit is non-refundable, then you're under no obligation to return the deposit even if you do book another wedding. You might book the next wedding for less. You will lose time having to court another client for a date you thought was already booked, etc.
    That's just the legal perspective. Of course, a client who cancels and doesn't get her refund back, but later gets a check from the photographer with a nice note saying that the date has been rebooked — well, that woman is going to say some nice things about the photographer to all her friends. So from a marketing perspective it's not a bad idea. It might even be "the right thing to do," although I think it's also correct to say that not doing this wouldn't exactly be "wrong."
    Will
     
  6. Sorry to be such a thread hog but I just remembered another little thing, as I was thinking about Steve S's interesting comment.
    At least from a legal and probably also from the moral and practical perspectives, it's important to establish firmly that the contract has in fact been canceled. I mean, we've all seen Father of the Bride, right? The wedding gets called off for a couple hours because the couple have a little quarrel. I'm pretty sure the photographer was never aware of this hiccup, but I'm even more sure that there are plenty of folks in this forum — the folks who shoot 40+ weddings a year — who have gotten a call from the client saying the wedding is canceled, only to receive another call a few days later say it's back on. It happens. La donna e mobile, or men have a pathological fear of commitment. Take your pick.
    Anyway, if the bride says the wedding is canceled, and therefore she wants to cancel the contract he has with me as photographer, I was would ask her to put it in writing and send it to me. I won't go into the ways in which this could get messy, because it probably won't. I would just hate to be in the position of having booked another wedding, then getting a call from the bride saying the wedding's back on. If it's canceled, it needs to be clearly canceled.
    Will
     
  7. 1. What did your contract actually say? That is what you need to go by, not your personal interpretation.
    2. Most wedding photographers call the deposit a retainer, to avoid messy interpretations of work done or not done. What does your contract call it?
    3. Most wedding photographers also state in their contract that the retainer is refundable should the photographer re-book the date. What does yours say?
    4. Going against your contract to refund the retainer is going to get you into a sticky situation. If you do so, hoping not to make your client mad, you also signal to all those other prospective college brides, that you can be pushed. Hence your contract wording about retainers being non-refundable, and perhaps anything else in your contract, will become meaningless.
    5. Some wedding photographers allow the retainer amount to be used against other services, such as portraits. I personally would allow such a thing, with time limits, and I also would allow her to keep the retainer on file against a future wedding contract, but 'at the prevailing rates'. So her retainer total may be worth less should she use it. You do not have to offer the same contract she had. You should also put a time cap on it, but be generous.
     
  8. Nadine's advice is right on point. I tell couples that my retainer is non-refundable, but I am also clear that if something truly catastrophic happens (one of them ends up the hospital for example), I will return it. However, if it is just a case of the engagement was broken off, I would allow it be used against other services or maybe for a future wedding, but I wouldn't return it.
     
  9. Nadine provided very good suggestions but the one about what to "call" a pre-payment a deposit or retainer to avoid misinterpretation didn't include the important part.
    Its not enough to merely label a prepayment as a retainer. It actually has to work like one. The common situation for wedding contracts is to have a non-refundable pre-payment made to ensure the photographer's availability to perform their services for a particular time and date. Ideally, such a clause is also the liquidated damages (The amount the photographer gets to keep) in case the client doesn't perform their duties. Different U.S. states have different laws as to the amount that can be kept and different conditions that may apply. Many allow a reasonable amount based on the knowable conditions at the time of contracting. Others also look at the date of breach or repudiation. Some even consider whether other work for the date or other mitigation was sought after the breach. This is an example of why its important to have an attorney review contracts and avoid using authoritative sounding versions found on the internet and other places. A contract is subject to local state requirements and should be set up to be consistent with them.
    On the practical issue of non enforcing terms and others finding out, I agree expectation management issues could arise. However, countervailing business concerns such as good will count as well. Refund terms are not necessarily meant to enforce in every occasion but always have an element of protection so the terms CAN be enforced when needed. I have no idea what this contract has but permitting a refund if suitable replacement is secured may be a good idea even when not required. The standard applied often is whether reasonable efforts were made to secure new work. Sitting around waiting for prospects is not a suggested approach.
     
  10. Thanks for the clarification John.
    What I wanted to add, and perhaps you can comment, John, is the necessity of having the cancellation in writing. I've only had one cancellation, but I have a cancellation form that I use.
    I also consider the severity of the reason for cancellation, as A. Davis points out. If the reason was catastrophic, of course, I would refund the retainer. No need to add to a client's burden in such situations. The time between the cancellation and the event is also a factor to consider.
    However, and especially these days, I hear of clients cancelling a photography contract 'because they now want to save the money', or 'found a better photographer (in cost or style)'. Many times, they will make up a story just to get you to return the retainer.
    So today, here is the sequence of things to do when someone notifies you that they want to cancel.
    1. Verify the cancellation by calling the venue and/or other vendors. If the venue is not also notified of that cancellation, something might be up.
    2. Send the client a cancellation form for them to sign. I personally do it through registered mail. Repeat the contract language re refunds of the retainer. If you allow the retainer to be used against other services, make that offer with clear time limits stated. To be absolutely sure, if one has not gotten a signed cancellation form before the event, I have heard of photographers showing up at the venue on the day, ready to photograph--just in case.
    3. Make reasonable efforts to re-book the date, if there is reasonable time to re-book. Obviously, if the client cancels a day before the event, you don't have any time to do anything along these lines. I am always unclear about the legality of e-mail signatures on forms, so if it were me, I'd be showing up, ready to shoot--just in case.
     
  11. The only selfish reason that I'm thinking about giving her deposit back is that I know she's a college student and I book a lot of brides from that college based on word of mouth. So if I give her her money back, it might lead to future bookings.​
    Good, you are thinking about that aspect. A worthwhile concern, and worth considering. You may try working with her to find *something* to fill the time, maybe her deposit has bought her some portrait session or something? Maybe setup some big shoot w/ her friends to spend the day shooting (at no cost of course)... she'll go away very happy, and you will have some more contacts there...
    If not, then don't, but of course extend your sympathies...
     
  12. Only dealt with this situation one time when I was still shooting weddings. Since all of my bookings came from referrals, I happily returned the deposit. This can be a stressful time for the customer. No need to add to their problems. The person who recommended me called to thank me and she eventually helped me secure a few more weddings. Sometimes what is fair in a business sense is not always the right thing to do.
     
  13. You don't tell us how far in advance their wedding date is from the date they have told you that they have cancelled their wedding. Do you explain to them that you have turned down other bookings who wanted their day and you now could loose on a possible days income. You are however quite happy to refund their deposit / retainer if you are successful in securing another booking for their date.
    This off course would have a better chance the longer the period between wedding day and cancellation date. I feel this is fair to both parties.
    I have only had one cancellation and that was two weeks before the wedding date. I got a two word email from the Bride to be (or not to be) "Wedding Cancelled" i never heard anything else from them and they never asked for their deposit back.
    As Wedding photographers we have a small window to earn our income each year at the height of the season. Therefore we are out of pocket with loss of income if a customer cancels sometimes with no way of making this up. It is therefore reasonable to keep the deposit and if this is explained politely to the couple they should understand.
     
  14. At least from a legal and probably also from the moral and practical perspectives, it's important to establish firmly that the contract has in fact been canceled.

    I think so too. If I was the customer and learned that I would not be getting my deposit/retainer back, I probably wouldn't cancel until the last moment.
    However, that brings up another point. If you don't cancel and the photographer turns up, he should be paid the full fee, wedding or no wedding. If you cancel and don't get your deposit back then obviously there is nothing more to pay.
    My question then is: At what point are you still liable for the full fee if you cancel? Ten minutes before the wedding? An hour? A day?
     
  15. Steve--the question is about the retainer, not about any other amounts paid against the total fee. If a client has paid the entire amount before the wedding (common practice these days) and cancels within a week of the wedding, I most certainly would refund everything but the retainer.
    Many wedding photographers have it in their contract that they do not have to return anything already paid, in such an instance. However, I have read about a case in which the client took the photographer to court, and won. The photographer had to refund everything. Just because it is in your contract doesn't mean you will prevail should you be taken to court.
     
  16. Thanks for all your help. My contract does say that the deposit is not refundable if the event is cancelled and not transferable to other dates. She found me through referral and I have another bride from that college this summer. So for marketing and goodwill purposes, I’ll refund her the deposit minus a non discounted amount for the engagement session.
    There’s no realistic chance for me to rebook as the wedding is in less than 2 months. Last year, a bride cancelled and didn’t ask for her deposit back. Well, that’s just the nature of this business.
     
  17. If you were putting your "money" towards a wedding, and the wedding was not going to happen, would you want your money back?
    [Our area has a large military population: orders send some men and women out of the area, or out of the USA, and to be fair....a returned/refunded deposit might be a good idea.]
     
  18. Nadine's story is more indication of what was raised earlier. That the contract should mirror, as much as possible, the jurisdiction's treatment of liquidated damages. Date reservations schemes are a great way since they make sense and are more likely to fit than anything else probably. I'm a big fan of graduated schemes where the non refundable amount incrementally increases as the date gets closer. Three steps seem to be agreeable with customers. The increase in nonrefundable amounts are often linked to like payment schedules. Considering the more unpredictable small claims judges, it may be a good idea to even say why the graduated scheme is implemented right in the contract. e.g. Due to the increasing difficulty of securing replacement work as the wedding date approaches, the scheduled retainer payments in section ### will not be refundable and will be liquidated damages in the event the wedding is canceled, postponed or the photographer cannot shoot the wedding because of circumstances caused by the client... ect. ect. (I just made that up so check what will fly in your area). It is also help offset the boo hoo hoo tale of woe the client will make to the photographer and/or to a judge. Its your own hard luck story in a sense.

    Also, as Nadine suggested, it may be a good idea to have some sort of wedding cancellation/refund procedure set up in the contract to clarify when and how refunds will commence.
     
  19. It is in my contract that the retainer is not refundable for any reason beyond my failure to show up for the wedding.
    However, there are practical limits to that - as pointed out... If a death of one of the participants or their families occurs, if they cancel far enough out and I can rebook the date, etc... Military service is another one. Then I'll give them a break.
    Get it in writing from whomever signed the original contract that your services are no longer required on the date of the wedding. And they release you from all obligations (taking photos at their wedding).
    Dave
     
  20. Mr. Green, I have something in my contract that says that deposits are non refundabe. However I don't feel good about taking money and doing nothing. It's not really right, because of how I was raised. Perhaps it's fine for others. Even if I don't have a booking to fill this spot I can't take money that I didn't work for. So I usually tell the people I will credit the deposit for future work such as family reunions, portraits, family portraits, new babies being born, birthdays, things like this. If they wish to take you up on your offer well great. If they never call you, well you made the effort, no need to feel you stiffed them.
     
  21. That is simple and has happened to me. Im a Wedding Photographer
    and had a couple just last year hire me for their wedding. They used me for their engagement pictures and paid me a large deposit for their wedding. Just 2 months before the wedding i got an email from the husband saying the wedding was off. To be honest of any couple i worked with this would be the one i would have totally expected it from. There was just something missing in their chemistry with each other. He did not ask for a refund as it is written very clear and highlighted in the contract that no refunds for any reason upon cancellation or changing the wedding date.
    As a pro I would say you should not return the deposit. You did the engagement work and you are also going to loose money on that date. Even though i kept the deposit i still lost thousands of dollars for that day, its a lose lose situation for everyone.
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