That massive oak tree is breathtaking, but the overhanging branches are damaging the shingles on your roof. You want to trim the offending tree branches, but the tree sits on the property line between your place and your neighbor’s. Are you breaking the law by breaking the branches?
“Trees on property lines are a common complaint between neighbors, but not so much at the courthouse,” says Cleve Clinton, partner at Gray Reed, Attorneys and Counselors, based in Dallas and Houston. “It is predictably difficult to justify paying attorney’s fees over a tree — on either side. But disputes over trees near the property line can involve large sums of money, especially if the tree is damaged or dies.”
Aside from its aesthetic value and its contribution to the environment, trees may have a monetary value to the homeowner, depending on the location and other specifics. This value of the tree could be based on:
- A decrease in value if the property itself if the tree is removed or damaged.
- Expenses to treat a damaged tree, or to remove a dangerous or dead tree.
- Replacement cost. This could include labor and cleanup costs.
Trees on Property Lines Are Shared
If the tree is on the property line, both property owners share the value of the tree and are responsible for upkeep on their side of the boundary line.
There are some things to consider if you have a problem with a tree on a shared property line:
Is It Legal to Prune or Remove the Tree?
The laws vary among states, counties and cities, so it is important to consult with your local departments about your rights and obligations of boundary trees. Generally, if any part of the trunk is on both yours and your neighbor’s property, the tree owner is both of you. It is considered the common property of both homeowners, and neither owner can damage or destroy the tree without the neighbor’s consent to do so.
You are allowed to maintain your property not only to the lot line but also under the ground and the sky above it. Trimming is only legal to the property line and is the responsibility of the party doing the trimming, says Clinton. “Absent clear danger, neither party can trespass on the other’s property to trim a tree. If a tree is damaged or destroyed by a neighbor, it is the responsibility of the person causing the damage — conceivably in dollar damages.”
According to the legal advice website NOLO, the tree doesn’t have to be chopped down to cause a legal battle. If you or your neighbor decide to trim branches, cut tree roots, or treat parts of the tree with a chemical that ultimately causes damage to the tree or your neighbor’s trees, you could be liable for damages.
Overhanging Branches, Underground Roots
What can you do about those overhanging branches, or other problems related to the tree such as roots damaging sewer lines or leaves that clog gutters? What about trees causing dangerous conditions, such as broken limbs or cracked tree trunks?
If it’s a dangerous tree, you have the right to trim branches and cut and remove tree roots that are intruding into pipes or foundations within your real estate. This includes trees whose trunks are entirely on a neighboring property and not on the property line. But you are also responsible for any costs incurred to do so. “However, an arborist should be consulted, and perhaps retained, to trim or cut invading roots,” says Clinton. “Any permanent damage to a neighboring tree is the responsibility of the property owner who trims / cuts the roots.”
Likewise, you must take care to keep the health of the tree in mind as a result of tree trimming. If you cut back a limb and disease attacks the limb, it may no longer be a healthy tree. And according to NOLO, some case law exists that awarded damages to property owners if their neighbors have trimmed a tree to the point where the tree is no longer visually pleasing.
What if the Tree Falls?
In most locations (and we stress that the laws may vary in your area), property owners are responsible for boundary tree damages on their own property, if the damage from the fallen tree occurs from an act of God, or during a hurricane or other extreme weather conditions. So it depends entirely on whose side of the property line the damage occurs. The property owner who suffers damage should file a claim with their homeowners insurance company.
If the trunk of a tree is in your yard, but hurricane pushes a big branch through the neighbor’s window through no fault of yours, it is not your responsibility. The owner of the adjoining property will have to file for an insurance claim.
The same is true in reverse for a tree whose trunk is on the neighbor’s yard: If that massive snowstorm causes a big branch hanging over your car to crunch your windshield, you can’t expect the neighbor to pay for the damage. That’s between you and your insurance company.
The exception: Say the branch has been dead for years. Your neighbor has complained and asked you to cut it down, and you failed to do so. In that case, you might be liable.
Can You Remove the Entire Tree?
The short answer is no. If the tree trunk is on the property line, you are both equally the owner of the tree. It may not be removed without the agreement of both.
Can My Neighbor Come on My Yard?
Courts give great deference to private property lines in the U.S. Your neighbor may not come into your yard to trip a tree or bushes without your permission. The same is true in reverse.
But this is where legalities can end an being a good neighbor can begin. If you like your tree and you intend to prune it on your own property, Clinton says that it’s best to ask permission to allow your tree-trimmer into the neighbor’s yard. That way, trimming around the entire tree is consistent and makes all sides of the tree look good.
He adds that the concepts of tree ownership, trespass and damages are essentially the same in all states. “However, the specific facts and local laws (such as municipal ordinances that prohibit unpermitted tree removal) will control the final result.”
“Good fences and good trees make good neighbors,” Clinton says. “Communication counts — and friendly, get-along communication at that.”