United We Wed

Experts weigh in on the do's and the don'ts of wedding planning with divorced parents.



Dad’s girlfriend, Mom’s boyfriend, stepparents, step-grandparents, step-siblings—with infinite variations becoming standard in American families, the logistics of planning an amicable wedding have become challenging. The good news: three etiquette experts assure that having parents who are separated or divorced needn’t add to the stress inherent in planning a wedding. Anna Post, author of Emily Post’s Wedding Parties and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, Debra Thompson, a wedding planner and owner of Weddings by Debra Thompson LLC in New Rochelle, and Rosa McLeish, owner and operator of The New York School of Etiquette and Protocol in White Plains, walk us through the proper way to invite, meet, greet, and seat all your guests without ruining the loving ambience on the happiest day of your life.

Q: If your parents are separated but are hosting and financially contributing to the wedding, what is the appropriate wording for the invitation?

Emily Post: “There are a variety of ways you can word it. One way is to say, ‘The family of…’ The other way to do it is to say, ‘Mrs. Sarah James’ on the first line­—‘Sarah James’ implies she is no longer married because it’s not ‘Mrs. David James’—and then on the second line it should say ‘…and Mr. and Mrs. David and Rebecca James invite you to…”

Debra Thompson: “The mother of the bride always reigns higher than the father. She should be at the top of the invitation if you are including both parents.”

Q: What if only one of your parents is contributing financially and you only want to mention that parent?

McLeish: “Who goes on the invitation is based on the relationship rather than the financial contribution. Do what is best for you and your future husband.”

Q: If you have stepsiblings, must you include them in the wedding party?

All of our experts agree that it is not required. Still…

Post: “If you exclude them, it could begin or perpetuate something bad.

Thompson: “If you have a great relationship with them, include them in the bridal party or ceremony. Have them do a reading, or in a Catholic ceremony, bring up the offertory. I’m a big believer in getting along because everything runs a lot smoother.”

Q: Should you order flowers for your stepmother or step-grandmother when you are ordering flowers for the mothers and grandmothers?

Thompson: “Absolutely! This is something that is too often overlooked. In fact, I find myself busy on many wedding days making some sort of boutonnière because someone was left out.

McLeish: “I always err on the side of etiquette and thus order flowers for all of them.”

Q: When mothers and grandmothers are escorted into the ceremony, should a stepmother and step-grandmother be included in the procession?

Post: “It is up to you.”

Q: If your father or mother is dating someone new, should you invite him or her to attend all of the festivities?

Thompson: “Yes, but first ask how they feel about it. And if your mother or father has been dating someone for a year or longer, definitely invite them.”

Post: “Any guest you are inviting who has a romantic, live-in partner, who has a fiancée, or who is married, must be invited along with their significant other. You never split up a committed couple."

Q: What should you do if you don’t get along with a stepparent? To what extent should they be included in the planning of the event or in the ceremony?

Post: “The stepparent could simply be another guest who happens to show up in the family photos. On the other hand, I’ve seen a stepfather walk the bride halfway down the aisle and the father the rest of the way. Maybe you have three or four ‘dads’ and they all walk you down the aisle. You can throw tradition out the window when something else is more meaningful to you.”

McLeish: “I had a situation where both fathers walked the bride down the aisle, one on each side, and the bride danced one song with her biological dad and a second song with her stepdad. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Q: If one of your parents is estranged and is coming to the wedding but has not contributed monetarily or in any other way to the wedding, should this parent be a member of the receiving line?

Thompson: “It is up to the bride and groom to decide whether or not to even have a receiving line, and if it’s something that’s going to drive you crazy, then eliminate it.”

Q: What if you do decide to have all parties in the receiving line, how should you arrange them?

Post: “I would put a little buffer between the divorced parents. If you need to rearrange the line to keep the peace, by all means do so.”

Q: If your parents are separated and not talking to each other, how do you handle the seating arrangements at the ceremony and reception?

McLeish: “The first person in the front row should always be the mother of the bride, then her significant other, and her family, then the father of the bride, his significant other, and his family.”

Post: “When it comes to seating at the reception, the divorced parents are never seated at a table with one another.”

Q: What do you do if the bride’s grandparents don’t get along with the father of the bride (their son-in-law)?

Post: “You treat the grandparents as one little unit, and then you treat the dad as another unit. Try to keep them separated.”

McLeish: “Don’t give special privileges to anyone. I have found that as long as you are fair to everyone, it usually works out in the end.”

Q: How should you handle photographs with a fractured or blended family? Should you take separate photos with your dad and his wife, and then your mom and her husband?

Thompson: “Choose your battles and be respectful of your parents. Don’t get too hung up on whom you do or don’t want in the pictures.”
Post: “You should never take a picture with your divorced parents without their new spouses. You don’t do just the biological family because it creates an image that is no longer valid.”

Q: What do you do if your parents are not on speaking terms and planning the wedding with them becomes more stressful than you would like?

Post: “Sit down and have a conversation with each of them separately. Explain that you need them to be able to work together to make this day a success.”