I'd never given much thought to canceled weddings -- until two of my close friends called theirs off, one a mere two weeks before the big event. While nixed nuptials aren't nearly as common as divorce, they do happen. According to David Olson, a psychologist and founder of Life Innovations Inc., a Minneapolis-based company that provides counseling to premarital couples, as many as 20 percent of his firm's clients ultimately decide not to walk down the aisle. But amid the shock and sadness of the breakup, there are practical things to worry about -- such as letting everyone involved know that you won't be getting hitched. If you hired a wedding planner, you may be in luck: Many are willing to deal with the messy details for their customers. Don't have the luxury of a planner? Here are some tips from the pros on how to go about dismantling your big day.

TELL YOUR GUESTS. If the invitations haven't gone out yet, it's fine to e-mail or call guests. But if your family and friends are expecting you to tie the knot next month, it's best to send a printed recall of the invitation, says Paige Quillin, owner of Greetings & Salutations, a stationery shop in Alexandria. "If the invitations were sent by the bride's family, they should send the recall," she says, adding that the format should mimic that of the original invite. There's no need to give gory details on the breakup: A simple "We regret to inform you that our wedding will not take place" should suffice.

CALL YOUR VENDORS. Always start with the reception site, says Betsy Jones, a sales manager at King Street Events in Alexandria, who's worked in the wedding business for 15 years. "That's where you have the biggest chunk of change." If they can rebook the date, you stand a better chance of getting a full refund. The same goes for the caterer, florist, tux rental company and other vendors: If they haven't ordered the crab cakes or calla lilies yet, they'll be more apt to give you back your deposit. Of course, you may luck out and happen upon a vendor sensitive to your situation. "I've returned money even if they've canceled a month before," says Steve Jerrick, general manager of Sara McGregor's Capitol Catering in Alexandria. "Calling off a wedding is upsetting and you really don't want to take money from people who are already having a hard time. It's like blood money."

GIVE BACK GIFTS. You may love your cappuccino machine or martini glasses, but unfortunately, etiquette states that you must return all wedding, shower and engagement gifts to the senders, along with a short note of explanation. "My fiance and I split them up. He returned the wedding gifts and I gave back the engagement presents," says Rachel Safier, a District resident and author of "There Goes the Bride: Making Up Your Mind, Calling It Off & Moving On" (Jossey-Bass, $14.95). If you've already used the gift, ask the person if you can reimburse them for it. "Most people will say no, since they're trying to be as kind as possible," she says. But it's polite to ask.

DEAL WITH THE DRESS. Safier refashioned her gown into a cocktail frock, but some brides can't even look at their dresses without bursting into tears. "There's a lot of hard feelings when a wedding is called off," says Connie Walker, owner of Aleya, a bridal store in Frederick. "It's easy to enough to cancel your caterer. The gown is more of a problem." I Do-I Do Wedding Gowns (15932 Luanne Dr., Gaithersburg, 240-243-0050, www.idoidoweddinggowns.com), a consignment shop, accepts new and used gowns and can usually sell them for about 40 percent of their original price, according to owner Jacqueline Zeranski. EBay is another place to unload the dress (and those of bridesmaids). As for the ring? According to Sanford Ain, a family law attorney in the District, an engagement ring is considered a "conditional" gift -- meaning whoever paid for it gets to keep it.

Michelle Hainer

Too late to cancel the cake? If the wedding is off, you don't need to worry about saving the top layer for your first anniversary.