The Rings, the Cake, the Rice … the Insurance?

Bride and Groom

April Hartley and Michael Wolber became viral sensations after being photographed against a fiery backdrop in Oregon. Photo By Josh Newton

New York Times
By Devan Sipher
July 11, 2014

Picture a rustic wedding in a verdant California park, the nervous couple about to walk the aisle. Now, picture a firefighter rushing in and telling everyone to immediately evacuate because of a wildfire.

Fans of the ABC comedy series “Modern Family” will recognize the scene from this season’s two-part finale. But weddings and wildfires are not just a made-for-TV combination.

On June 7, only two weeks after that episode was shown, Michael Wolber waited at Rock Springs Ranch in Bend, Ore., for his bride, April Hartley. She and her father were about to walk down the hillside when fire trucks rushed in with sirens blaring. A wildfire that ended up destroying more than 6,900 acres was quickly approaching, and though of lesser significance, six months of wedding preparations were about to potentially go up in smoke, literally.

“I’ve never been evacuated before, and I’ve never been married before,” said the now Ms. Wolber, 33. “I was having trouble deciding which I should be more nervous and panicked about.”

While most wedding planning is devoted to creating a perfect day, things can go wrong — sometimes, terribly wrong. And while you can’t ensure a happy marriage, you can insure a wedding.

For more than 20 years, the Firemen’s Fund Insurance Company, part of Allianz, has been underwriting wedding insurance through Robert V. Nuccio, an insurance broker in Toluca Lake, Calif., and the owner of Wedsure. Over those two decades, Mr. Nuccio’s firm has gone from being the only company in the United States offering special-event policies to being one of several, including units of Travelers, Aon and USAA. As it turned out, the Wolbers were insured by Wedsure, but more on that later.

Policies differ, but wedding-insurance plans protect against situations like extreme weather or a missing caterer. Plans are secured by couples to protect most anything that would prevent them, their parents or the majority of their guests from attending the wedding as planned.

One caveat is that most insurance companies require such a policy to be bought at least 14 days ahead to cover weather-related events. In other words, calling for insurance while Hurricane Sandy was barreling up the East Coast wouldn’t have worked.

When Mr. Nuccio started offering wedding insurance, he said, an average wedding cost between $14,000 and $15,000. It is now close to $30,000. “To a guy who makes $50,000 a year, $30,000 is a lot of money,” Mr. Nuccio said. “When you can’t afford to put on the same event twice, that’s when you buy wedding insurance.”

That motivated Josh Rosenberg, 31, to purchase wedding insurance with Travelers last July. He had witnessed friends lose their deposits after Hurricane Irene forced them to postpone their wedding and was concerned that a snowstorm could interfere with his wedding plans this December. “I was Googling how to protect myself,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “I didn’t even know wedding insurance existed.”

As it turned out, he had more than blizzards to fear. In May, his wedding site, the reBar restaurant in Brooklyn, went bankrupt, and the owner was charged with grand larceny and tax evasion.

Mr. Rosenberg and his fiancée, Kristina Martin, 31, were shocked and anguished. But one week later they received a check from Travelers for a little more than $13,000. “Every penny we gave to reBar we got back,” he said.

Julie Villar, 27, was not so lucky. Her wedding was only two weeks away when reBar closed, and though she managed to find another location, she and her husband, Chris Gardner, 29, didn’t have insurance and lost the $20,000 they had paid reBar.

But Leslie Price, a New York wedding planner and the owner of In Any Event, doesn’t recommend wedding insurance for most of her clients, preferring a simpler form of protection. “For every contract that I have my couples sign, I have my vendors add a postponement clause,” Ms. Price said, explaining that the clause allows for a one-year postponement if the event needs to be canceled because of illness, accident, acts of terrorism or acts of nature, “or for any reason beyond client’s control.”

Ms. Price’s method requires less effort for her clients and has the added benefit of being free, which was the advantage that was also stressed by Joyce Scardina Becker, an owner of Events of Distinction in San Francisco, who inserts a similar clause into contracts with service providers.

Yet insurance offers greater reimbursement, and the cost is relatively small. It can be as little as $125 for $10,000 of coverage, and roughly $600 for $100,000 of coverage.

But that’s just cancellation insurance. There is also liability insurance, which many wedding spaces now require. With more weddings taking place at private estates and alternative event spaces, couples often must provide a certificate of liability insurance, making them responsible for any property damage or bodily injury that takes place during their wedding, or after the wedding if it was caused by the actions of an intoxicated guest who was served alcohol at the event.

“We’ve become a litigious society,” Ms. Scardina Becker said. “One moment you think you’re inviting a friend to your wedding, and the next moment you’re being subpoenaed for a lawsuit.”

Rock Springs Ranch is one place that requires liability coverage, which is why the Wolbers, the Oregon couple, had purchased a policy from Wedsure (that included cancellation coverage).

That didn’t make the prospect of being evacuated any more palatable, and the couple remain grateful that the firefighters gave them a 15-minute reprieve to have an abbreviated marriage ceremony.

“There was a huge weight off both of our shoulders when we realized we could get married in this place we picked,” said Mr. Wolber, 25.

But instead of lingering among their guests for a relaxed and elegant reception, they immediately vacated the premises with their photographer, Josh Newton, who took the shooting flames and billowing smoke in stride, since he had photographed weddings for 10 years and has dealt with mishaps big and — well, there is no small. “When anything goes wrong at a wedding,” he explained with a laugh, “it feels like a natural disaster.”

He drove the couple to a secure location to take pictures, and the resulting photos of the couple embracing before a fiery sky became an Internet phenomenon after Mr. Newton posted them online the next day.

The Wolbers became the symbols for a wedding gone wrong. But when they contacted Wedsure, they were told that their insurance did not cover the evacuation of their reception.

“The policy says we cover the nonrefundable expenses you have incurred if it’s canceled, but it wasn’t canceled,” Mr. Nuccio said. “They needed to cancel the wedding reception.”

After the ceremony, the Wolbers did meet with their guests in a public park in Bend, where they sat on the ground and ate salvaged food on paper plates, while their rented tables and stemware remained in a smoke-infused lodge.

Mr. Nuccio, before knowing the Wolbers were actually clients of Wedsure, was asked by a reporter about their particular situation since their photographs had gone viral. He suggested then that the Wolbers’ experience exemplified the benefits of wedding insurance. “Even though the wedding took place, the reception was spoiled,” he said.

But Mr. Nuccio, in a later interview, pointed out that the Wedsure contract defines cancellation as a private event being terminated “in its entirety.” The contract also defines a “private event” as something taking place at a specific “date and place,” and the public park was definitely not the location specified in their contract. Mr. Nuccio did not respond to questions about this seeming contradiction, nor did a representative from Fireman’s Fund Insurance.

Some may consider being removed from one’s wedding as synonymous with cancellation. “If insurance doesn’t help with that extreme of a circumstance, it’s hard to recommend,” Mr. Wolber said.

Travelers has similar language in its wedding-insurance contract, but Ed Charlebois, the vice president for specialty-lines product management, suggested that Travelers might interpret it differently.

He emphasized that each claim is unique, but he also said that “if you had your ceremony but were not able to have the reception where you planned to have it, that’s something I think that would be covered.”

Janet Ruiz, the media relations manager for Fireman’s Fund, said: “We take customer satisfaction seriously at Fireman’s Fund. We are reaching out to Mr. and Mrs. Wolber to resolve any questions they may have regarding their wedding insurance.”

So, is wedding insurance just one more thing that can go wrong with a wedding?

Jolene Rae Harrington, an editor of “Here Comes the Guide,” a bridal resource, remains cautiously in favor of coverage.

“The bigger your budget, the more sense it makes to get insurance,” she said. “We always suggest you review all fine print on the wedding contracts, and make sure you do the same with your insurance.”

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