People do not often associate trees with legal rights and lawsuits. When a person visualizes the trees in their backyard, they are more likely thinking about the aesthetic scene they create in a garden, the shade they provide on a hot summer day, or the shield their leaves form as a makeshift curtain that offers privacy from nosy neighbors. Unfortunately, even trees sometimes make an appearance in court.
While you may be familiar with lawsuits for car accidents or ski injuries that involve trees, you probably are not as accustomed to the legal issues surrounding trees and the rights you are entitled to when the branches of a neighbor’s tree hang over and onto your property.
In general, the laws regarding overhanging trees and/or their branches mostly stem from state and local legislation. Thus, the first thing you should do if a neighbor’s tree hangs over your yard is to review the laws on trees enacted in both your state and your local county. Then start searching for your real estate paperwork because that is going to be the next step.
When you purchased your home, you probably had to have an appraiser or inspector conduct a property survey. A property survey shows the homeowner the exact boundaries of their property. This report will tell you whether or not a tree and/or its branches fall within the boundaries of your property or are considered to be a part of your neighbor’s property.
If the tree crosses your neighbor’s boundary lines and falls onto your property, then it is your responsibility to take care of or get rid of them. In which case, you have a legal right to remove them. However, you cannot do this by trespassing on their property or by going into their yard to cut it down. You may only trim the part of the tree that is considered to be on your property and you must do this while staying in your yard.
If it is too difficult to tell whose property the tree falls on or if the tree sits directly on the boundary line, then you may want to speak with your neighbor first before taking any further actions that concern the tree or its branches. These disputes can easily be cleared up by communicating with your neighbor; especially, if the two of you have a good relationship.
If your neighbor refuses to pay to have the tree removed, to help you chop it down, or to give consent to allow you to get rid of it, then you will need to seek legal recourse. Regardless of how difficult your neighbor is being or how dangerous a tree limb appears to be, do not ever intentionally destroy or harm your neighbor’s tree. Doing so can result in having to pay fines to your neighbor for up to two or three times the replacement value of the tree (e.g., usually between $500 to $2,500).
What Can I Do If My Neighbors Complain about My Tree in Their Yard?
In the event that a neighbor is the one complaining about a tree in a person’s yard, then the person should talk to their neighbor about the problem and ask them what actions they think would help resolve the issue. For example, if there are branches hanging onto the neighbor’s property, then ask the neighbor how much of the branch would have to be trimmed to satisfy them.
However, if a person does not want to trim their tree, then they should review the local ordinances regarding tree conditions and confirm that the law is on their side. It is possible that a person might be violating local rules if the height or size of the tree is beyond what is legally permitted or if the tree is considered a dangerous condition because of its traits.
If it is, then the neighbor will have grounds to sue the person to have the tree or its branches removed. This is true even if no actual damage has been done to their property. The violation of a local ordinance will simply allow them to file a lawsuit.
Additionally, in some states, a neighbor may be able to sue the person over a tree if the following conditions exist:
- The tree encroaches on a neighbor’s property;
- The roots or branches of a tree have caused property damage to another homeowner’s property;
- The tree’s roots have crushed, cracked, or clogged the pipes of a neighboring property;
- The tree is poisonous and is threatening a neighbor’s or the entire neighborhood’s health and safety; and/or
- The tree is seriously interfering with a neighbor’s ability to use and enjoy their property (i.e., a nuisance).
Thus, a person’s best bet is to review the local laws to check that the law supports them and to consult legal counsel for further advice.
Who Owns the Tree?
The person whose property it is where the tree trunk sits is also the person to whom the tree belongs. So, if the tree trunk sits entirely in a neighbor’s yard, then the tree belongs to that neighbor.
On the other hand, when the tree is located directly on property lines, then the tree belongs to both property owners and thus both neighbors are responsible for taking care of the tree. This type of tree is known as a “boundary tree”. In which case, to remove or take any other actions towards a boundary tree will require the consent of all property owners.
What About Dangerous Trees?
When a tree poses an actual threat or danger to a person or their property, then a local city agency may be able to intervene and resolve the issue with the tree. For example, if a tree is at risk of falling over, crashing into a person’s house, and potentially harming the persons who reside in it, then it may be best to contact the city to circumvent a neighbor who is refusing to have it removed.
Some cities have even passed rules that prohibit homeowners from maintaining dangerous conditions on private property. If such an ordinance exists, then the city can demand that the owner remove the dangerous tree or else they will be forced to pay a fine. Alternatively, a utility company may also trim a tree that threatens its equipment, such as a tree that is too close to power lines or interferes with doing work on neighborhood power lines.
In addition, if a neighbor still does not comply, then the person having an issue with a dangerous tree can sue them in an action for nuisance. The suing party may claim that it is unreasonable to continue to preserve the tree and that it interferes with the use and enjoyment of their property. If the plaintiff prevails, the court may then order the neighbor to pay for and remove the tree or at least the parts of the tree that are posing the danger.
Do I Need a Lawyer to Help Me with My Tree Problem?
If your neighbor is refusing to remove or take care of a tree that is encroaching on your property, then you may need to take legal action against your neighbor to resolve the issue. You should begin the legal process by hiring a local real estate lawyer to review your case. If your lawyer determines you have a viable claim, then they can help you take the proper steps to get the tree removed.
An experienced real estate lawyer can also assist you in filing the necessary paperwork to bring a lawsuit, providing representation in court, and recovering any damages. Additionally, your lawyer can inform you of your rights and will be able to answer any questions you may have about tree and neighbor disputes.