Letter Of The Law


If you’re planning a wedding, you’ll undoubtedly seek, and receive, blizzards of advice. But one person you may not think to call is a lawyer, and my point — and I know this will come as a surprise — is that this is unfortunate.

I know, I know, why should a member of a somber profession, usually focused on disputes and technicalities, have any relevance at all amidst your wedding planning joy?

Here’s why: because taking a few simple steps at the outset can help improve the odds that your wedding day, and the married life that follows it, will be the smooth and happy experience you seek.

My introduction to wedding legalities came from a powerful partner at a prominent New York law firm, where I was both a happy newlywed and a terrified junior associate in his employ. In that latter capacity, I was seated, as was often the case, at the far end of his huge desk, awaiting instruction on a low-level task. But first, the partner said, he needed a minute … to review the catering contract for his upcoming wedding.

To my astonishment, that partner worked over that form contract with an intensity usually reserved for a high-stakes lawsuit. He frowned, deep in thought. His eye found issues. His pen obliterated text, and inserted new text, with a scratchy, vaguely threatening sound. The exercise took 15 minutes, which was 15 minutes longer than I had spent thinking about any aspect of law when I planned my own wedding with what I thought was exceptional care.

The truth is that marriage, in addition to being a joyous Jewish rite of passage, is an event replete with contracts, and not just the one between chassan and kallah.

Let’s start with the reception. If you are planning one, you should be signing agreements with your caterer, your band, your photographer and possibly even the shop where you buy your dress, if tailoring is in order.

Should you read those papers before you sign? You know the answer. If you don’t want to, ask your cousin the lawyer to do it, perhaps in lieu of a gift.

What are you looking for? A place to put your specific requests in writing, and an opportunity to respond to loopholes. Your favorite DJ might take ill on your special day, so his contract probably allows a substitution. Better you should know in advance. Also, chances are your wedding service providers will protect themselves with non-refundable deposits if you cancel. Make sure the size of that fee is not outrageous (as in the full cost of what you bargained for, rather than a percentage).

Once in a while, a botched event, or poorly altered dress, puts you in position to demand a refund, informally or through small claims court. You’ll want the paperwork to back your claims.

What about your prized photos and video? Typically, they are the legal property of your photographer, who grants you permission to use them. Do you want to change those terms, or block the use of your portraits for promotional purposes? Yep, another contract to review.

Of course, the ultimate pre-marriage contract is the prenuptial agreement. Modern couples wonder: is it a prerequisite for walking down the aisle?

“Most couples do not need a prenup,” says Henry Gornbein, a family law expert and author of “Divorce Demystified,” who says that while he rarely prepares them for first marriages, they are useful when one or both parties have children or a lot of money or property to protect. Prenups, Gornbein notes, can address religious issues, including choosing which branch of Judaism a couple will choose to raise their kids, and whether their education will be religious or secular, but child-related issues can be reviewed, and reversed, by a judge if the marriage fails.

For Orthodox Jewish couples, the potentially thorny issue of the get can be addressed through a prenup offered by the Beth Din of America. In it, each spouse agrees to appear before a panel of Jewish law judges if the other spouse insists, and agrees to obey its decision about a get. To encourage a husband to grant the get, he is obligated to pay his wife $150 per day until the Jewish divorce is final. Other rabbinical organizations offer variations on the prenup, but the intent is similar; it’s important for women to sign one before they go under the marriage canopy.

Prenup or not, after the big day, consider adding a bit of legal paperwork to your post-wedding obligations. Yes, eventually you should write (or rewrite) a will, and add power of attorney and health care proxy documents. But before then …

“One thing couples need to do is change the beneficiary designations on their 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement plans,” says “Today Show” financial editor Jean Chatzky, author of “Money Rules.” “Many people don’t understand that these things override even your will.”

And as you thank your well-wishers, don’t forget a gift from an unlikely source: the federal government.

Our nation’s tax system generally favors wedded couples with lower taxes, especially when one spouse earns more than the other and can avail herself of a shared, lower tax bracket. Take a look at your withholding choices together to be sure you share those allowances properly. (Look at IRS Publication 919. Like other IRS publication, it is surprisingly clear, and free; drinks and snacks optional.)

And once you complete these tasks, you can reward yourself with the timeless, married couple activity that any lawyer would endorse: an at-home meal, perhaps a drink or two, and an evening of binge-watching “Law and Order” reruns.

Lisa Green, a lawyer and MSNBC legal analyst, is the author of “On Your Case: A Comprehensive, Compassionate (and Only Slightly Bossy) Legal Guide for Every Stage of a Woman’s Life” (William Morrow, 2015); lisagreenlaw.com.