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4 ways to help avoid wedding contractor catastrophes

KOMO

What do you do when someone you hired for your wedding takes your money but doesn't perform? It happens more of often than you'd think.

Alison Lively got married in August of 2015 and says the wedding itself was picture perfect. But Alison has spent more than a year trying to get back a $1,000 deposit on a venue she decided not to use.

"We cancelled in November of 2014," said Alison, "which was still 9 months in advance"

Kelsey Cash also had a picture perfect wedding. She just doesn't have the pictures. The photographer she and her husband paid to take pictures of the wedding, took the money and disappeared.

"I handed her the money and she left," said Cash. "And I haven't seen her since."

Both couples learned the hard way that the wedding business can be a minefield of costly disputes. Local Attorney Kristina Larry sees the nightmares.

"The biggest one has been the photographers. They're not getting their pictures back, or the pictures are lost," said Larry, who has a division of her business called the "Seattle Wedding Lawyer."

"I think a lot of times people hear somebody may have been good, or they saw something. And they kind of, don't follow through with checking references, or really making sure that they're an established professional," he added.

Common wedding contractor conflicts include photography failures, venue revisions and closures, and vendor no-shows where the flowers, cake or limo never arrive. Bungled bridal gowns and bridesmaid dress orders can also be an issue.

Larry says in one of the worst cases she's dealt with, the wedding planner never showed up and the planner had made all the arrangements- cake, flowers, food, music- everything. To ward off wedding contractor calamities you must do your homework well in advance and study the contracts.

"Reading what you're signing is one of the biggest things that people kind of avoid doing," said Larry.

When Kelsey Cash hired the photographer, she relied on a friend who knew someone. She didn't know to get a contract. She didn't know you should never pay in full before you get the product or service. It turns out the woman she paid was not a professionally licensed photographer at all. We could find no evidence of a business license, and attempts to contact the woman got no response. Now, the only wedding photos Kelsey has are the photos taken by friends and relatives on their smartphones.

Alison Lively ended up taking venue operator Peter Olson to Small Claims court to get her deposit. The judge ruled in her favor. "Our judgment came out to $1,096," said Lively, who contacted the Problem Solvers because after more than a year she still had not received her money.

When I contacted Olson at The Landing at Northcut in Seattle, he apologized and explained that he thought he had already mailed Alison her check. "I hold 180 weddings a year and am well regarded," said Olson by phone. Olson asked that Alison contact him. She called him right away. Six hours later she had her money, in cash.

Whether you're planning a wedding, graduation party or any special event- you can prevent most vendor disputes by doing your research, reading contracts and asking questions ahead of time. How long have you been in business? What references can you provide of former customers? Can I see pictures of your work? What is your business license number? What is your policy for handling unexpected emergencies? What happens if you have to close a month before my wedding? What happens if you lose the photos? How will I get my money back? The answers can help you determine how solid a business you're dealing with. Get everything in writing.

Attorney Kristina Larry adds that if you see something in a contract that you don't like, negotiate. Just because it's in the contract doesn't mean you have to accept it. Larry also says many of the issues that come up in vendor disputes, are covered in contracts which the customers never bother to read.

As for what to do when a dispute arises despite your best efforts, always express your concerns or complaints to the vendor in writing. If you can't reach an agreement, Larry strongly recommends third party mediation.

"Mediation is great and it's very cost effective," said Larry. "It's a lot cheaper than going to court and fighting it out for who knows how long."

If mediation doesn't work or is not an option- file a complaint with the state Attorney Genertal and the Better Business Bureau. Filing a complaint doesn't guarantee resolution, but it does help shine the light on a potential problem with the business, or possible violations of the Consumer Protection Act.

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