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What to Know When Entering a Wedding Sweepstakes

By her count, Kelley Arslanian enters some 20 online sweepstakes a day.

“It all started in fourth grade when I won a TV” as a raffle prize at a school fund-raiser, she said, adding that from then, “I got the bug to keep entering.”

Ms. Arslanian, 32, an analyst at an insurance company, has a spreadsheet of the prizes she has won over the years, which have included a shoe shopping spree, concert tickets, a diamond wedding band — and her wedding, which she won after entering a sweepstakes hosted by the Flower Fields, a 50-acre farm and events space in Carlsbad, Calif., where Ms. Arslanian and her husband, Steven Arslanian, 33, a licensed therapist, were married in March.

The couple, who live in Tustin, Calif., were chosen from among 449 participants, who had few requirements to enter: follow and tag some businesses on social media and post about a dream wedding guest using a specific hashtag. In addition to a free venue, they received décor including flowers and signage; a cake; photography; event coordination; a catered barbecue and beverages for up to 50 guests; and a wedding dress for Ms. Arslanian at no cost. The sweepstakes host valued the prize at around $25,000.

Ms. Arslanian entered the contest on Instagram after the pandemic forced the couple to postpone their original wedding date in October 2020. “We had a lot of stuff booked and planned out,” she said, estimating that the couple lost some $2,300 in nonrefundable fees. “I saw this contest and I was like, ‘Hey, let’s just give it a shot.’”

In addition to social media, sweepstakes are often advertised on wedding blogs, according to Sneh Diwan, a wedding planner and the founder of Diwan by Design in Jersey City, N.J., who noted that she has seen fewer contests being promoted now than before the pandemic. “I feel like vendors are shying away from it because many vendors were burned after Covid,” she said.

The average cost of a wedding in 2021 was $28,000, according to a nationwide survey of 15,000 couples conducted by the wedding planning website the Knot. In a separate study that surveyed 1,699 individuals, the trade group the Wedding Report determined that weddings last year cost $27,000, on average.

No matter a couple’s budget, sweepstakes that offer to cover all or some wedding costs can seem to have few, if any, downsides. But as the Arslanians learned from their experience, “You have to be prepared to give up a certain level of control,” Ms. Arslanian said. The couple had to use a photographer chosen by the contest host, for instance, and she had to wear a gown from the Bustle, a shop in Del Mar, Calif., that sponsored the sweepstakes.

“If you’re the type of bride or groom that has this idea of an exact wedding with the exact flowers, it’s not the experience for you,” she added. “You have to be willing to be open minded.”

In addition to carefully reviewing the terms and conditions of a wedding sweepstakes, experts and couples who have participated in them say to also consider the following factors before entering.

Though winning a contest may make all or much of a wedding free, prizes are not tax free. “The winner is going to pay taxes on the fair market value of whatever it is they won,” said Logan Allec, a certified public accountant and the owner of Choice Tax Relief in Santa Clarita, Calif. “The sponsor of the sweepstakes will generally determine the value of the prize,” he added, which is considered taxable income.

When entering a wedding sweepstakes, couples should look into whether the prize includes cash to cover a winner’s estimated taxes; if not, they should be prepared to budget for them.

The amount of taxes an individual or a couple will pay will depend on the cash value of their prize, their income and their tax bracket. Someone who makes $1 million a year will pay more taxes on a $50,000 wedding than someone who makes $50,000 a year, Mr. Allec said.

“States and even some cities have their own local taxes” that can affect how much a winner may have to pay, he added.

In addition to taxes, wedding sweepstakes entrants should be prepared to pay for vendors, items or services that may not be included in a prize.

For their wedding, the Arslanians’ out-of-pocket costs included invitations, wedding dress alterations, tips for vendors, favors for guests and lodging for the couple near the Flower Fields, as well as transportation to and from the venue on the day of the event.

There were also “vendors that we ended up hiring that weren’t included,” Ms. Arslanian said, including a videographer, D.J. and hair and makeup artists for the bride and bridesmaids. She estimated that the couple paid an additional $3,200 for goods and services not included in the contest prize.

If the contest prize includes a venue, winners will likely have fewer options to choose from for a wedding date.

When the Arslanians won the Flower Fields’s sweepstakes, the venue presented them with two months — August 2021 and March 2022 — from which to choose a date.

“It was really just those two months,” Ms. Arslanian said, noting that the couple had to plan around the venue’s and certain vendors’ availability. “They basically just said, ‘It’s this date.’”

This past summer, the SLS Beverly Hills hotel in Los Angeles ran a sweepstakes on Instagram that offered a wedding at the property’s indoor-outdoor Garden Terrace Ballroom next year.

The prize, valued at $45,000, included food and an open bar for up to 100 guests — fewer than contest winners Maricris Lapaix, 33, an online fitness coach, and Nate Hyland, 36, a consultant, had initially envisioned inviting. Narrowing down the guest list for their September 2023 wedding, Mr. Hyland said, “is probably going to be the hardest part of all this.” The ballroom can fit up to 200 guests, but the couple, who live in Los Angeles, will have to pay a surcharge of between $150 and $250 for each additional attendee if they host more than 100 people.

For the Arslanians, who were not given the option to invite more than the 50 guests, having a cap on attendees made planning easier. “It really made it so that the core people that we wanted there were there,” Ms. Arslanian said.

In exchange for sweepstakes prizes, couples can be required to let hosts use their wedding for marketing purposes. Ms. Lapaix and Mr. Hyland had to give the SLS Beverly Hills the right to use photos and videos from their wedding after it takes place, and the Arslanians also signed a release allowing the Flower Fields to use their names and wedding photos in promotional materials.

“We love the fact that we can make a wedding come true,” said Taylor Moss, the director of marketing and events at the Flower Fields. But for contest hosts and sponsors, attention drawn from sweepstakes is just as important.

“For a lot of vendors that get involved with sweepstakes, publicity is part of their motivation,” Ms. Moss added. “I think we can be honest about that, right?”

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