What Can You Legally Do About Neighbor Disputes Over Trees?

Understanding your options for handling tree disputes

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on June 2, 2022

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Trees can be a wonderful feature of your landscape. They give shade in hot weather, improve the health of your yard and local ecosystem, and increase the beauty of your property. However, trees can also be the root of neighbor disputes.

Tree disputes can arise in many situations. If not maintained, trees can become an eyesore or even a hazard. Tree branches hanging over your property line can cause property damage by dropping debris, clogging gutters, or hitting up against your house. If a neighbor removes or damages your tree, it can diminish your property value and enjoyment.

Especially if neighbors don’t get along, tree disputes can become heated. As a homeowner, it’s essential to understand your legal rights and duties before taking legal action. And hopefully, tree disputes can be settled without legal action. This article will cover some common situations where tree disputes arise and what you can do.

Can I Legally Cut My Neighbor’s Tree? 

In disputes over trees, the first question to ask is who the owner of the tree is. If the tree trunk stands completely in your neighbor’s yard, then your neighbor is the tree’s owner. You cannot cut down the entire tree without the owner’s permission.

Sometimes, trees stand on either side of the boundary line between your and your neighbor’s property. These are known as boundary trees and belong to all property owners. Even though you are an owner of a boundary tree, you generally cannot cut down or remove it without your neighbor’s consent.

Can I Cut Tree Limbs or Branches Hanging Over My Property Line?

When branches or roots from a neighbor’s tree grow over your property line, it is called encroachment. Overhanging branches and roots may not cause any problems. But if they do, you generally have the right to prune branches or roots back to your property line.

By allowing neighbors to deal with tree encroachment by pruning, the law gives neighbors leeway to fix tree issues without legal action. However, if you do consider trimming back a neighbor’s tree, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Only trim branches or roots back to your property line
  • You cannot damage or destroy the tree by trimming
  • If you have to go on your neighbor’s property to trim, you must get their permission unless the tree poses imminent harm or damage

The neighbor who does the tree trimming generally has to pay for it. However, there may be other options in your case:

  • Utility company. In some cases, you may be able to have a utility company do the trimming if a tree interferes with power lines or other equipment.
  • Public property. If your neighbor’s tree interferes with any adjoining public property, you could notify your local or city government about trimming.
  • Homeowners’ association rules. If your neighbor’s trees violate homeowner association rules, they may have to pay for trimming.
  • Damage. If you face substantial damage from encroaching trees, some states will allow you to trim and demand that the owner pay. State or local laws will have the answer, and a lawyer can help you understand your rights.

How To Handle Tree Removal When Located on a Property Line?

Trees located on a property line are called boundary trees. As noted above, boundary trees belong to each neighbor. Because of this, neighbors generally cannot remove a boundary tree on their own without getting the neighbor’s permission. If you do remove a boundary tree without permission, you could be liable for monetary damages.

The best way to handle boundary tree removal would be to talk to your neighbor first and explain the situation. Questions your neighbor might ask are:

  • Why do you want the tree removed?
  • Is there another solution besides removing the tree?
  • Who will pay for the removal?

If you are dealing with a dangerous tree that threatens to damage your property, the situation may be different. The first step is still to make your neighbor aware of your concern. If your neighbor fails to do anything, you could:

  • Inform your neighbor of any local ordinance or zoning law regarding their responsibility to maintain their trees
  • Notify your local or city government about the hazardous situation
  • Let your homeowners’ association know of any rule violations

What Are Your Legal Options if a Neighbor Removes or Destroys Your Tree Without Permission? 

Suppose a neighbor removes or destroys your tree without your permission. In that case, they are liable to pay you compensation for your losses.

The exact amount they may have to pay varies by state law. It could depend on whether your neighbor acted intentionally or made a mistake and the kind of tree involved. For example, ornamental, historical, or landmark trees can cost much more than more common types of trees.

To get money damages, you could sue your neighbor. Depending on the amount involved, this may be a case for a small claims court or civil court.

However, it is always important to realize that you may be able to settle without suing. Tactfully confronting your neighbor may be sufficient to resolve the matter since they may want to avoid the costs of going to court.

What Are Your Legal Options if a Neighbor’s Tree Lands on Your Property?

If a neighbor’s tree lands on your private property, your legal options depend on the circumstances.

Sometimes, trees fall due to an “act of god.” This is where no one reasonably saw the tree as a threat or could have done anything to prevent the tree from falling. If your neighbor maintained their trees and acted with reasonable care to avoid foreseeable hazards, they may not be liable.

However, suppose the tree posed a threat that your neighbor could have foreseen and avoided by simply maintaining it. In that case, they might be liable for any damage caused by the tree falling on your property. In cases like this, you may need to sue to get compensation for damage to your property.

Questions for an Attorney

If you consider taking legal action, getting good legal counsel is essential. Many attorneys provide initial free consultations to prospective clients. These meetings are an excellent resource for both attorney and client because it allows the attorney to hear the facts of the case while the client can determine if the attorney meets their needs.

The best way to decide whether an attorney is the right fit is by asking informed questions. Here are some good questions to ask during your initial conversations:

  • What is your fee, and what billing options do you offer?
  • What would be the best way to resolve my tree dispute?
  • Is it possible to get money damages?
  • What is your experience in cases like mine?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can give you legal advice throughout your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

For tree disputes, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices real estate law or general litigation law.

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