Calling Off the Wedding: Answers to Your Most Pressing Questions

Besides the emotional fallout, there are logistical issues to take care of when a wedding gets called off. Here's what to do if it's more than just cold feet or jitters.
kim forrest the knot
Kim Forrest
kim forrest the knot
Kim Forrest
Senior Editor
  • Kim writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, specializing in etiquette and planning advice
  • Kim manages freelance writers for The Knot Worldwide
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Kim was Associate Bridal Editor at Washingtonian magazine and Associate Fashion Editor at Conde Nast’s Brides Local magazines
Updated Oct 12, 2022
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Canceled weddings are a touchy subject, but the truth is, sometimes they're the right decision. No matter if a couple chooses to call off their wedding due to relationship red flags, family problems, infidelity or other issues, once the decision has been made to halt wedding planning and cancel the event, it can be a relief for both parties. If you're calling off your wedding, you might not know where to start—but that's where this guide comes in. Here, we answer your pressing etiquette and logistical questions regarding how to do it.

How do we let everyone know we're calling off the wedding?

If invitations haven't yet gone out but save-the-dates have, a printed card should be sent out to the guests, worded similarly to the invitations:

Mr. and Mrs. Scott Dixon
announce that the marriage of
their daughter
Barbara Marie
Howard Franklin
will not take place

You can also send cancellation announcements via email, but just know that many guests will reply asking what happened—a topic that you likely don't want to discuss right now. If you do go this route, make sure that all recipients are bcc'd to avoid any "reply all" snafus.

If the invitations have already gone out, someone needs to email or call everyone on the guest list and let them know that the wedding won't take place—texting is a little informal for the seriousness of this message, but in a pinch, it's okay. Obviously the couple may be too traumatized to take care of this; parents, siblings, wedding party members or other friends and family members should help out.

Do we have to explain why we're not getting married?

No—simply letting guests know there will be no wedding is enough at this point. There'll be plenty of time later to confide in family and friends about the situation. Avoid posting on social media unless you want a barrage of questions from well-meaning family and friends.

But what if people keep asking me what happened?

If people keep asking you about it after you've made it clear you don't want to talk about it, they're the ones in the wrong. You never have to explain to anyone if you don't want to. If you keep getting pestered, have a close friend or family member talk to the person and tell them they really need to stop because they're upsetting you.

Who gets the engagement ring?

This question is more complicated than it seems, because each situation is so different. If the ring recipient calls off the wedding and her ring was a gift from her ex-fiancé(e), it's appropriate for her to give it back. If the person who gifted the ring cancels the wedding, the recipient may want to give them their ring back because they don't want to be reminded of their engagement. If the ring is a family heirloom, it should go back to the family it came from, regardless of why the wedding was canceled. If the couple bought the ring together, they need to decide what to do with it, as they would with any other joint purchases they've made.

For the legal deal on rings, we turned to Caroline Krauss-Browne, an attorney in the matrimonial department at Tenzer Greenblatt LLP, in New York City. Note, however, that laws differ state to state. "In accepting the ring, the proposee promises their hand in marriage. So long as they are willing to fulfill their promise, they have given consideration for contract. So if her partner breaks it off, the ring recipient can keep the ring," Caroline explains. "But if the ring recipient breaks off the engagement, they signify that they are no longer willing to keep the promise, and in this case, they shouldn't retain benefit from the agreement (the ring)." If the ring cost less than $2,000, Caroline says that a small claims court is a fine forum to air your grievance. (Check small claims limits in your locale.) But, Caroline maintains, "If the ring were an heirloom of extraordinary value, the laws of equity would probably override in a situation like that." But for the legal specifics of your state, consult with a local attorney.

Can wedding insurance help?

Unfortunately, no. Wedding insurance can be your best friend in the event of cancellation or postponement (due to weather conditions, sudden death in the family, illness, natural disaster and so on), but not when the cause is a change of heart.

Do we have to return the gifts?

You're supposed to return all the engagement, shower and wedding gifts you've received—even presents that've been personalized (like monogrammed towels)—to the guests who sent them. If you've used any of the gifts, it's okay not to send them back, but everything else should go. Include a note thanking the guest again for their kindness. (Some guests may insist that you keep their gift, and if they do, you should graciously accept.) You may feel like it's unfair that you have to give up all your presents—especially if you weren't the one to call off the wedding. But look at it this way: They would only remind you of a wedding that didn't happen, right?

What do we do about the dress?

We asked Michelle Roth for Michelle Roth & Co. in New York City to break down the options. "When you order your wedding dress and accessories from a bridal salon, the outfits are often backed by your binding signature to a non-refundable, water-tight contract," she explains. "Remember, you're not the first bride to cancel her wedding dress order—professional bridal salons have dealt with this issue before. However unpleasant, keep a perspective on the fact that a dress can be canceled and unraveled much more easily than complications in your life." Michelle recommends having a family member make your arrangements for you if the situation is too raw.

Some ways to make the best of discarding the dress:

  • Cancellation policy: Ask if the special order dress has been cut yet. If not, you might be able to negotiate a cancellation fee.
  • Nearly Newlywed: This service for selling pre-owned wedding dresses is as simple as it gets, which is exactly what you need. For just a $25 listing fee, they'll completely take the reins—from advertising your gown to shipping it out.
  • Sample sales: If a wedding salon is having a sample sale anytime soon, ask the manager to put your dress on sale. Agree to a minimum price and make it unbeatable, so you can cut your losses and put closure to the situation.
  • Consignment shops: They may enable you to recover some of your investment. Check their policies, and make sure you're in constant contact with the shop you've chosen—this will help keep your dress top-of-mind with the consultants.
  • Charity donation: You can obtain a well-deserved tax deduction while doing something great for a person in need.

How do we cancel the honeymoon?

Unless you requested a waiver (a fee you pay in advance which exonerates you from all or some of the cancellation fees up until 24 hours before the departure date) from the cruise line or tour office you booked your holiday with, you're up a creek. Cancellation fees can price at 100 percent of the cost. Travel insurance is a safety net in most circumstances, but according to Bob Chambers of CSA Travel Protection, "We aren't able to provide coverage if there's a change of heart," he says. Chambers advises always knowing what the cancellation fees are before booking the travel arrangements, and always ask about waivers. Penalty fees are usually subject to the amount of notice given (three months vs. three days makes a big difference).

What if the guests already made travel arrangements?

If you set up the hotel block for everyone, call the hotel (or have someone close to you do it) and explain the situation. Honesty is definitely the best policy here (don't try to make up a story about why you need to cancel your block). Read your hotel cancellation policy—some hotels may require a few months' notice—then work with them to see what they can do for you and your guests. When it comes to plane tickets, it's a little trickier. It's inconvenient, but your guests need to call the airline to work something out. They may get credit to change their flight and/or destination to use on their next vacation.

Will we be able to get refunds on deposits with our wedding vendors?

That depends on how diligent you've been about your vendor contracts and how close to the wedding date the cancellation happens. Good contracts have a refund policy—you should be able to get back a certain percentage of any deposits you made if the party is canceled by a certain date. The closer it is to the actual wedding day, the less likely you are to get your money back—establishments and other wedding professionals are simply protecting their own businesses. If there is no language in the contract you signed about a refund policy, you may be out of luck.

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