Avoiding a Fence Dispute in Minnesota

Some rules to keep in mind

We don’t need Robert Frost to tell us that fences can be a good thing for neighborly relations: If you live in an urban area, a fence can delineate your yard, provide a backdrop to landscaping, keep the dog and kids safe, and keep wanderers out; if you live in a more rural area, fencing can provide boundary markers, as well as protect and contain free-range livestock. 

When you have a fence that runs along the boundary between your property and that of your neighbor, there are laws that allocate responsibility and define what’s permitted. Where fencing issues are concerned, it’s always best to take a proactive, communicative approach, letting your neighbor know well in advance if you have fence ideas that will affect them. 

Some general Minnesota fence rules to keep in mind:

Who pays for a partition fence?

When a fence is on the property line between you and your neighbor (a “partition fence”), the law states that expenses should be shared for installation and repair. If a dispute arises, the party who pays for the fence is entitled to recover from the non-paying neighbor their half of the costs.

What is a fence viewer?

A fence viewer is the title of the official charged with overseeing and deciding fence disputes. The term derives from early New England law, where disputes arose regarding livestock roaming onto neighboring property.  In modern times, a fence viewer is a city or county commissioner, or other local administrator, who hears, assesses and decides boundary fence disputes. You may have to pay a modest fee to the fence viewer for their services.

What is the effect of a fence viewer’s order?

When a fence viewer has made a decision in a fence dispute assessing a cost allocation between the parties, failure of a party to comply with a fence viewer’s order is subject to recovery by the other party of double the amount owed.

Are there any exceptions to Minnesota’s partition fence rules?

Neighbors are permitted to make arrangements they both agree to regarding fence construction or cost allocation that differ from the division set by the state. These agreements must be written and filed with the county recorder. In addition, St. Louis County landowners are subject to a slightly different standard of cost-sharing. Towns may also adopt their own partition fence policies.

Is being forced to pay for a fence that my neighbor puts up an unconstitutional taking?

Probably not. A Minnesota court of appeals has determined that the Minnesota fence statute is constitutional, and that even where a fence is unwanted by a neighbor compelled to pay for half of it, their adjoining property receives value from the fence. 

What if my neighbor’s tree hangs over the fence to my side?

If the trunk of the tree is fully on your neighbor’s property, it’s their tree. But responsibility for trimming branches and preventing hazards is determined by which side of the property line the branches are on.  If branches hang over the fence onto your side, you are free to trim them back as far as the fence, no more, and you can’t cut anything so drastically that would cause harm to the tree.

Are there other rules relating to fences I should know about?

Most cities and municipalities have their own local rules. For example, St. Paul requires that you get a building permit to put up a fence, and restricts the height of residential fences to a standard 6 feet 6 inches unless you obtain a variance.  In Minneapolis, fences can be 7 feet, and under that height do not require a permit. There may be additional restrictions that apply to your specific community.

If you need advice on how to handle a neighbor dispute, talk to a real estate lawyer in your area. For more information on this area, check out our overview of real estate laws.

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