Dear Miss Manners: My boyfriend and I need to get legally married now for immigration purposes in order to stay in the same country after I graduate from medical school. We cannot afford a wedding right now, and the timing is bad because of an intense medical school schedule.

For the two of us, this civil marriage feels like our engagement. We would also like our family and friends to think our wedding is meaningful when we do have the "real" ceremony in a year or so.

However, we didn't want to keep such a serious decision from our parents, who are traditional and upset about this split setup.

What should we tell friends who kindly inquire about our future plans and engagement status? What should we ask our parents to say when faced with the same questions? I dislike lying, but I also feel that this is private information.

Gentle Reader: We can only hope that your reluctance to face the facts and your conviction that you can manipulate reality and suppress inconvenient information will not carry over to your medical career.

Miss Manners is aware that many couples have now separated getting married from what they are pleased to call "having a wedding." They throw the party at another time, which would be fine in itself, but they include a fake ceremony, as if that made it as important an occasion as the real thing.

That Miss Manners is not the only person who considers this fraudulent is evident from your realization that your guests will not find the rerun as meaningful as actually witnessing your marriage. And you cannot make your legal marriage into an engagement by declaring it so.

Rather than tangle yourself further in this deception, Miss Manners recommends admitting that you are married but that you will be inviting them to a delayed celebration later. If you must, you can add, "and we'll be re-enacting the ceremony then."

Dear Miss Manners: My husband and I have an ongoing debate that perhaps you can clear up. He says inviting someone out for dinner, lunch, ice cream, etc., means we are obligated to pay for their meal. I say this isn't necessarily so. What is the proper etiquette regarding this issue?

Gentle Reader: Your husband is correct. When you invite someone out for dinner, you pay. When you agree to meet people for dinner, people pay for themselves. Miss Manners warns you that careless verbs will cost you.

Dear Miss Manners: My husband died this year. Is it appropriate for me to return the gifts given to him over the years by good friends?

Gentle Reader: Please do not do that. Miss Manners knows that you mean well, but to return a present is an insult, and your doing so would be interpreted as breaking off your tie to the donors now that your husband is not there. Giving each of his close friend a photograph or other memento would, however, have an opposite and gracious effect.

Readers may write to Miss Manners at [email protected], or via postal mail at United Media, 200 Madison Ave., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016 or (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper. Miss Manners' newest book is "No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice," written under her real name, Judith Martin. © Judith Martin, Dist. by United Feature Syndicate Inc.