Most of the contracts I’ve encountered in the wedding industry leave some serious gaps in coverage, leaving the client as well as the service provider at risk. Now more than ever, our colleagues are finding out the weak spots in their contracts the hard way. It’s time to learn from our mistakes and prevent any future headaches — or even worse, liability — which is why as both a photographer and a licensed attorney, I’ve put together this actionable guide for tightening up your contracts.
Contracts aren’t just a good idea — they’re essential. Not only do they protect you, but a thoughtfully composed contract also makes expectations, services, and deliverables clear from the get-go. This means your client knows exactly what they’re signing up for and can communicate any questions, concerns, or priorities before officially enlisting your services. Sounds ideal, right? Happy clients are good for business. See five actionable tips for your contracts below (please be sure to see the legal disclaimer at the bottom of this article).
1. Use the Correct Language
Legal documents require specific language (and clear punctuation, but that’s another topic for another time). For example, do you know the difference between the word “deposit” and “retainer?” A layman often uses these terms interchangeably, but they have extremely different implications legally.
A deposit is a partial payment, which means that if the services cannot be completed for any reason, the client can make a legal case to get their money back due to unjust enrichment. Essentially, unjust enrichment happens when the service provider makes money without earning it. So if the deposit is a partial payment for the performance of agreed upon services, and these services are never provided, the money needs to be refunded.
A retainer, however, is a separate payment to essentially purchase a date and time slot, regardless if you credit the retainer toward the coverage of the event or not (although this does need to be spelled out in the contract). So even if the event is cancelled and you are unable to perform services, you were still prevented from booking other clients for the date and time the client purchased via the retainer fee, and, therefore, the retainer is non-refundable. This should be thoroughly covered within your contract.
2. Define What’s Non-Refundable
Having an event cancelled or rescheduled is inevitable, so make sure your contract covers how those situations will be handled not only logistically, but also financially. First, check to make sure you have policies that detail what happens when a client initiates the cancellation or postponement versus having a vendor cancellation. Second, separate the process and policy for postponement and the process and policy for cancellation. If the client postpones their date to next year, for example, the monies paid thus far still apply, but they are subject to an increase in your rates or a new retainer. If the client chooses to cancel their event which is still a year away, all fees paid thus far are deemed non-refundable to cover miscellaneous operating costs and administrative expenses, but they do not owe you any outstanding, future payments. These are just examples. You will customize your policy on a number of factors, such as the method and language used to notify you of the change as well as the number of days prior to the event you received the notification. Be specific, here. And do not forget to include what happens when these conditions are not met.
There is one other contract clause that contains important language about what is non-refundable, and all contracts need to have this clause included: Force Majeure. Force Majeure refers to unforeseen situations where performing the agreed upon services becomes impossible, at no fault of the client or the vendor. Check your Force Majeure clause to make sure the list of what qualifies is extremely detailed and comprehensive, so there’s no ambiguity when circumstances arise. Examples of events qualifying under Force Majeure include but are not limited to earthquake, fire, pandemic, war, civil unrest, and more. Second, include what happens when Force Majeure applies — does it default to your typical rescheduling and cancellation policies, or do you have an exceptional policy for refundability?
3. Use Consistent Language
You might have to add language, clauses, and updates to your contract yourself over the years. This leaves you at risk of using inconsistent language (such as switching back and forth between “deposit” and “retainer” as we discussed above) or even negating yourself in your own contract. It’s easy to overlook this with an untrained eye, no matter how many times you read the contract yourself. You will always have your original meaning and intention in mind, so it might read as perfectly clear to you. It’s helpful to have someone (better yet, a lawyer) review your contract for you to see how it actually reads and is interpreted compared to how you want it to read. A fresh set of eyes and a different perspective make all the difference.
4. Include Travel Rates and Fees
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the cost to travel to a wedding you’re covering falls on you if it’s not a destination wedding. A wedding in your state might still be a two-hour drive each way. Not only does that add time to your work day, but it’s also mileage on your car (hello, maintenance fees), gas, and possible tolls. Make sure you are calculating and covering the real cost of doing business, which means every single client contract — not just the destination weddings — needs to cover travel if that is part of your business policy.
So what should be included? Set a flat fee or reimbursement system, and vary it by regional, national, and international travel. If you’re not charging a flat fee, make sure to cover everything from mileage rates to accommodation minimums, entrance fees to meal stipends. Spell out when the client can expect an invoice for travel fees (pre-wedding or post-wedding) and how long they will have to pay it. The contract needs to also include what happens if the travel fees are not paid, such as withholding the images or incurring late fees. Specify whether or not you need travel insurance and whose responsibility it is to pay for it. And finally, if there’s anything COVID-19 has taught us, travel can be unpredictable — and it can be really hard to get your money back. So, a non-refundable travel policy works best in my experience.
5. Don’t Leave Room for Ambiguity
A great contract is comprehensive in scope; the industry has been thoroughly researched, and the contract covers every possible scenario with specificities for both the client and the vendor. A great contract is clear; the language is consistent, the descriptions are understandable — not ambiguous — and it is stripped of legalese so the client actually understands what they are agreeing to. A great contract is up-to-date, having been reviewed annually to evolve with your business, industry best-practices, and the ever-changing local laws, policies, and regulations. A great contract not only protects you, but it also protects your client, which fosters a healthy relationship and clear expectations between the two of you.
This may seem like a lot — and I’m not going to sugarcoat it; it is. That is why a lawyer-composed contract is vital. If after reading the above, you find your contract is severely lacking but you don’t have the budget to hire an attorney to make a custom contract for you, there is still a way to provide services with confidence: purchase a lawyer-composed, template contract. These check all the boxes and are protective, comprehensive, easy to modify, and affordable so you can release the legal anxiety and focus on the part of your business that you do best.
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This information is made available for educational and general informational purposes only; it is not legal advice for an individual case nor does it guarantee any future result. This material may be improved upon or updated without notice, and Magi Fisher (and InFullFrame and its affiliates) will not be held responsible for any outcomes as a result of this education. Do not act upon this information without seeking individual advice from a lawyer licensed in your state. You understand that viewing this information does not establish an attorney-client relationship between you and Magi Fisher.