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Recouping wedding costs lost to the shutdown

Friday, 25 Oct 2013 | 2:04 PM ET
Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images

When it comes to weddings, at least, the government shutdown may be considered an act of God.

Plenty of stories emerged during the shutdown of couples forced to come up with a Plan B because the park or monument where they planned to wed was closed. Now that the government is back up and running, they may be looking to get their money back.

If there's good news, it's that costs for a wedding ceremony tend to be a small slice of the total wedding budget. (Permits from national parks and monuments typically do not allow on-site receptions.) In 2012, couples spent $1,395 on ceremony costs—not including an officiant to marry them—according to The Wedding Report. That's 5.4 percent of the average $25,656 wedding cost.

Like a strike or natural disaster, the shutdown likely qualifies as a force majeure, or act of God, said attorney and former wedding planner Katy Carrier, founder of Law for Creatives. The shutdown was something neither the couple nor the venue could control, so technically, the contract wasn't breached.

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"Most of the time in written contracts it's kind of vague about what happens, if an act of God happens," Carrier said. Contracts usually include a clause about "unjust enrichment," though, which means neither side can benefit financially from such an event. Couples should be able to successfully obtain a refund, she said.

Permit costs to have a wedding ceremony at a national park or monument tend to be negligible. For example, Yellowstone National Park charges just $50 for a wedding permit; the National Mall and Memorial Parks, $90. Mike Litterst, chief spokesman for the National Park Service, said permits are issued at the individual park level, and it would be a park-by-park decision to offer refunds.

"The National Park Service will work hard to ensure that none of our visitors is penalized for a cancellation that was beyond their control," he said.

"Yes we are giving refunds," said Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. Couples with upcoming weddings who made alternate arrangements in the event the shutdown persisted can also request their money back. "We understand weddings are not something you want to do at the last minute," she said.

But unjust enrichment provisions aren't likely to extend to other vendors such as ceremony musicians or a florist—who would still be able and willing to provide their services, Carrier said. Couples who incurred extra costs as a result of changing locations or dates may not have recourse to get that money back, she said.

The exception: couples who purchased wedding insurance. Policies typically cover nonrefundable deposits and extra costs incurred due to problems with a vendor or venue, said Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president for the Insurance Information Institute. That could include the costs of relocating the ceremony because of an unexpected venue closure.

Couples planning a wedding for early next year may want to ask a few more questions before buying a policy, Carrier said. The congressional deal notably keeps the government running through Jan. 15, and suspends the debt ceiling through Feb. 7.

The risk of another shutdown could now be, in insurance terms, a known risk.

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @kelligrant.

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