A "dream" wedding can turn into a "nightmare" that marches its way down the aisle, straight into a courtroom.
Local small claims judges and court mediators have unsnarled disputes over things ranging from broken promises to rancid potato salad.
The messages from these cases:
* Many problems can be avoided in the first place with foresight.
* Most of these disputes are better resolved through negotiation rather than lawsuits.
As one of several mediators working in small claims court, I have been caught in the crossfire of warring brides, grooms, mothers-of-the-bride, caterers, wedding planners, you name it.
Two cases mediated in California demonstrate how some problems can be headed off. Because mediations are confidential, identities and details are omitted.
Idyllic setting not 'ideal'
For her special day, the bride planned her spring wedding to be held on a gently rolling, oak-studded hillside about an hour's drive east of San Diego.
The caterer advised that the site posed logistical problems. He also warned the weather would be sunny and hot and urged umbrellas or tents be provided for the guests and to help preserve the food. But the bride insisted the wedding party and guests would celebrate in the magnificent outdoor setting without restrictions. No umbrellas. No tents.
The big day came. Wedding guests and support staff got lost, arriving at the location later than expected. The ceremony was delayed. And, yes, it was hot.
For some, the "reception" began before the wedding took place. Thirsty, early arrivers started drinking. By the time the "I do's" were recited, some were already toasted and the cold cuts weren't cold.
Weeks later, the bride, mother-of-the bride and wedding planner faced off with the caterer in a mediation session. The angriest was the wedding planner, whose reputation was on the line. The mother complained that for all of her family's expense, she had few memorable photographs. The most memorable was of her underaged daughter face-down drunk in her plate of food.
The food was spoiled, the trio argued. They refused to pay the caterer, who noted they had refused to heed his warnings. He also pointed out that all the alcohol he provided was consumed, even if most of the food was not eaten.
Resolved: The family paid for the alcohol and other beverages. The caterer "ate" his bill for the food.
Lessons: Be realistic when planning a wedding. Head off problems by listening to professionals' advice.
Groom backs out three times
The bride and groom were in their early 20s. They had a rocky relationship, with the groom backing out of a planned wedding a year earlier. But he talked his way back into the young woman's heart and a wedding again was scheduled.
While other details of this case were disputed, everyone agreed that the bride's mother took charge of the wedding plans. It was going to be a large, elegant affair. Invitations were ordered. The bridal gown and dresses for the bridesmaids and the mother-of-the-bride were bought. The reception was booked. Money was being spent.
But as he had done a year earlier, the groom backed out. The bride's family sued, demanding the reluctant young man repay them for the thousands of dollars they had spent. Before a judge heard the case, the parties were sent off to mediation in hopes they would reach a settlement.
The groom argued that a big wedding was the bride's mother's idea. He wanted something smaller. The mother countered that the groom's unacceptable idea of a smaller wedding was a keg of beer in his backyard.
The groom also said he did not want to marry into the bride's family. He reasoned if his desires were pushed aside in wedding planning, likely that would be his experience in other family matters.
After hours of negotiating, a tentative settlement was reached, with the groom agreeing to pay a small portion of what had been spent. But before the parties could return to court to have the agreement blessed by the judge, the groom again backed out. He declared he would not pay one dime.
Resolved: After hearing the case, the judge decided the young man owed nothing.
Lessons: The size and scope of a wedding should be decided by the bride and groom, not just the bride's family. A wedding begins a marriage that should be an equal partnership. And when someone has a history of broken promises, it also is likely to be his or her future.
To find a mediator to help resolve a dispute, go to your local court's website, where you likely will find a court-approved mediator panel list, or to the website of a Better Business Bureau in your area, where you will find information about its mediation services.
A version of this article written by mediator JOHN HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Jan. 7, 2010.