A Judge's Advice about Wedding Planning

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A Retired Judge’s Perspective on Wedding Planning

As an active Judge and as a Retired Judge I presided at over a 1,000 weddings.  I no longer perform wedding ceremonies, but here are some of my thoughts as a result of my 33 years of experience with weddings.

Planning Ahead: Many couples plan their weddings a year or more in advance. Many ministers and rental locations need to be scheduled this far ahead. Judges, however, generally do not want to schedule weddings more than a few months ahead and many wedding locations can be booked on much shorter notice. Couples should ask themselves if they really want to devote a year of their lives planning a wedding. If you do take months for advance planning, consider putting most of that effort into pre-marriage counseling and preparing yourselves for a successful marriage, rather than losing sleep over what kind of dress to wear or food to serve. Time and effort put into counseling may be the best gift you can give yourself.

Setting Priorities: The amount of time and money you could devote to wedding planning is almost unlimited. To help keep things in perspective, set some priorities for yourselves. When you find yourself stressed out about planning, go back to your list of priorities and concentrate your efforts on what's important to you.

Use these items and others you may add to decide what's most important for your wedding. If a listed item is not important to you, take it off your list and don't worry about it. Give each remaining item a number, starting with #1 as the most important to you:

  • Following wedding traditions, especially:

1.     formal invitations

2.     long white gown

3.     bridesmaids and groomsmen

4.     traditional location

5.     fresh flowers

6.     rehearsal dinner

7.     wedding cake

8.     wedding buffet or meal

9.     live music

10. professional wedding pictures

  • Inviting friends and family from across the country or around the world. Many people will travel great distances to attend your wedding if you invite them. Since they may need extra time to make travel arrangements, be sure to give them a “save-the-date” notification well before the wedding date.
  • Providing opportunities for friends and family to get acquainted or reacquainted with you and each other.
  • Photographs. Photographers have their own ideas about what to photograph.  Be sure you have told them your preferences. Plan ahead for what photos you would like, so you don’t miss important shots.
  • Learning about the hopes, dreams, family traditions, religious beliefs and lifestyle preferences of your spouse-to-be.  Will you be able to find a way to incorporate some traditions from each side of the family into your plans?
  • Creating a ceremony with words that reflect your personal hopes and goals, and vows that have special meaning to each of you.  Be sure that you see the text of the proposed ceremony ahead of time.  Read it carefully and ask for changes if it says something you are not comfortable with.
  • A memorable honeymoon.  You might consider a short honeymoon right after the wedding and a longer trip of your dreams a few months later.
  • Wedding presents, showers, bridal registries.  If you don’t need or want gifts, consider creating a “bridal registry” of your favorite charities that guests could donate to in your honor.
  • Financial planning to ensure you will have the resources to make your dreams come true.  Do some research to make sure you understand the legal and financial implications of your marriage.  You may want to each get a print-out of your credit report to make sure there are no hidden credit issues.
  • Legal consultation, preparation of wills, updating insurance and retirement plans, identification of property which will remain separate and property which will be jointly owned. 
  • A big party with food, music, dancing and alcohol. Alcohol can create many problems, not just from cost, but out-of-control behavior.  Think carefully about how to keep these issues to a minimum.
  • Accommodating the expectations of family and friends, even if they are not your own.

What might go wrong? Here are some things that frequently cause problems on the wedding day:

1.
 Music. Music problems usually occur when there is recorded music and the person operating the equipment isn't quite sure what he or she is doing. Music should not be figured out at the last minute and the person playing the music needs to practice. Here are some questions to ask: How loud should the music be? Is it easy to find the required piece on the equipment? Will the music keep playing after everyone has marched in? Can you fade out the music, rather than stopping it abruptly? Will there be music after the ceremony? When will it begin? Music problems are usually minimal with an experienced DJ or live musicians, since they usually have a lot of experience accommodating the needs of brides and grooms.

2.
 When do we start? There is often confusion surrounding the question of when the ceremony will begin. The officiant needs to know when to walk to the center of the room. Be clear about whether you plan to start on time, after a 10 or 15 minute wait, or after someone looks over the crowd to see if all the important people are there. If you use this last choice, who will be the person to decide and how will he or she let the wedding party know? A wedding coordinator can be a tremendous help with this task.  It’s very difficult for the bride to be the one to decide to start since she is usually hidden before the start of the ceremony and can’t evaluate if everyone is present.

3.
 Corsages and Boutonnieres. Someone other than the bride needs to know which people will be wearing flowers and have a clue how to pin them on so they don't fall off halfway through the ceremony. Despite what the dictionary says about "boutonnieres," do not try to fit the stems through a buttonhole! The flowers are intended to be pinned on top of a man's lapel! I have actually seen family members take a butcher knife to the suit of the groom trying to make a hole for the flowers. It is not a pretty sight! Also, don't plan on flowers for the officiant unless you know they will not be wearing a robe. Photographers are often willing to help you figure out where the flowers should go, since they want them to look good in the photos.

4.
 Seating. There needs to be a plan concerning where people will sit, even if the plan is that people can seat themselves and sit anywhere. People arriving at the wedding want to know they are sitting in the correct place, so there should be ushers or other people near the door to greet people and let them know what the procedure is for seating. If ushers are expected to show people to their seats, please rehearse with them how they are to do this. While it may be customary for gentlemen to offer an arm to the lady, many people are not used to this formality and aren't sure what to do. Help everyone out by deciding in advance how this aspect of the seating will be handled. If certain family members (such as parents and grandparents) will be seated just before the ceremony begins, be sure their seats are marked and they have a comfortable place to wait while all the others are seated. Have a clear plan of how and when they will eventually take their seats.

5.
 Paperwork. You will need to sign the marriage certificates on the day of the wedding. I usually had the bride and groom and witnesses sign before the ceremony, even if it meant I had to go from one location to another to obtain the signatures. If you sign the papers afterwards, please do so right away. The judge or minister may have other obligations and should not be kept waiting while you socialize with your guests. You can discuss this with the officiant ahead of time so you are all clear about where and when the papers will be signed. The officiant will give you the ceremonial certificate to keep. Put it where you will find it easily. There is no easy way to replace it, as one bride asked me to do when they accidentally threw it away with the wedding trash.  Some couples like to sign the marriage paperwork during the ceremony itself.  This is unusual, but can be done.  It will require some advance planning, so be sure to discuss this with the officiant well ahead of time, if this is your preference.

5.
 Tipping. Unless the officiant is your personal clergyperson or a close friend, you will probably have been quoted (and paid) a designated fee well in advance of the wedding ceremony. In that situation, no tip is expected or required. If no fee was set in advance, then a generous tip is appropriate, since it will substitute for the set fee that would otherwise have been paid. A tip may be appropriate even if a designated fee has already been paid. In considering whether to give a tip and the appropriate amount, consider whether the officiant went out of his or her way to be helpful, i.e. responding to numerous questions, adjusting plans to accommodate your requests, arriving early to help with last minute details, providing helpful information. Also, consider how the orignal fee compared to those of other officiants. If the original fee was low and the service excellent, a generous tip would be well-deserved. If you are considering giving a tip, designate a particular person to make that payment and have it ready in an envelope in advance. Let others in the wedding party know who will be handling the tip so there is no last minute confusion (or unintended double payment). In my own experience, I received tips at about 20% of my weddings, with the amounts ranging from $20 to $500. A typical tip would be 15-20% of the quoted fee.

After the wedding. Be sure you put your copy of the marriage certificate in a safe place.  About a month after the wedding, order a certified copy of your marriage certificate from the county wedding registry.  There may be a time in the future when you need to prove that you were married and it will be much easier to already have a certified copy of your marriage certificate than to track it down later. The certificate you receive from the officiant at the wedding is not considered legal proof of the wedding because it has not been filed with the county.

Get to work promptly on your post-wedding “to-do” list:

1.      Thank you notes for gifts and to those who helped with the wedding.

2.     Updating insurance records with your new marriage status.

3.     If you have changed your name, you will need to update all your legal documents, including social security, driver’s license, and passport.

4.     Changing bank accounts to implement your plan regarding how to combine your finances.  Consider having individual accounts as well as a joint account and have a clear understanding what should go in and out of those accounts.

5.     Decide whether you need to have wills drawn up and what documents you might need in case of a disability, such as a healthcare Power of Attorney or Living Will.  Talk over end-of-life preferences, organ donations, cremation vs. burial and other matters that there will be an urgent need to make decisions about in the case of a serious accident or illness.

Carolyn Hayek, Retired Judge