Question: There is a tree on the property line between my neighbor and my yards. We are not certain of the property line, but they believe it is fully on my property. It is a 4′ wide tree and maybe it is a few inches in to their property line. They feel it is cracked and might come down. They say it is my responsibility. He bought his house 2 years ago and the tree branch leaned over to their property pretty much in the same condition.
My neighbor won’t split the cost of taking down the tree or the limb with me. I think he has to be responsible for it since the branch hangs over his property and always has been since he bought the house. Can you help?
Answer: Your predicament raises several issues.
Determining Ownership of a Tree on the Property Line
First, ownership does matter. You say need to determine who owns the tree. Is it on your property or is it a tree on the property online? To make this determination, you will need to have a clear understanding of where the property line lies. Then you need to determine is the tree trunk entirely on your property or is it also on your neighbor’s property.
If the tree stands on your property, then you are responsible for the tree. If the tree straddles the property line, then it is a boundary tree (read more here about boundary trees) and you both own the tree. If the tree is on both of your properties, then neither of you can act without the permission of the other and you both share liability for the tree.
In either case, your neighbor is free to trim any parts of the tree that overhang his property. He does not need your permission to trim what hangs over his property. If he does decide to trim or move the branches, he must do so at his own expense. He cannot charge you for that trimming. It also does not matter how he leaves the tree looking as long as he does not kill the tree. (If he kills the tree, then he can be held liable for replacing the tree.)
Must the Branches from the Tree on the Property Line Come Down?
Second, must the tree limb come down? It is not enough that your neighbor asks that the tree limb come down. To justify action, there needs to be a clear indication that the tree limb poses a threat. If an arborist deems it unsafe or hazardous, that would be a clear indication. However, simply because your neighbor wants the tree limb down, that does not require you or anyone else to take down the limb.
If in doubt, consult with a tree expert (a certified arborist). Get an expert opinion on what needs to happen with the tree.
Are You Liable for Damages Caused by the Tree on the Property Line?
Third, there is the question of liability. If you own the tree and your neighbor provides clear evidence that this branch poses a threat and the branch falls and causes damage, you could be held liable for the damage. That clear evidence could be an arborist report and the notice could be conversation you had with your neighbor or something more formal such as a letter or certified letter. If you own the tree and your neighbor fails to provide clear evidence that this branch poses a threat and the branch falls and causes damage, then it is less likely that you could be held liable for the damage. The question becomes more difficult to answer if the limb falls and causes damage and your neighbor produces photos of a branch that a court believes represents a common sense picture of a damaged or dead tree limb that posed an obvious danger. (Read here for more about receiving notice that a tree poses a threat.)
If there is a clear indication that the tree branch (or the entire tree) poses a threat, then you do not have to take down the offending tree branch, but you should seriously consider doing so. If you have been put on notice about a dangerous limb and fail to take action, you most likely will be held liable for any damage the limb causes. Even worse, if you have been put on notice and fail to act, your insurance company may not cover any damages you must pay. Taking down a troublesome branch would make for good neighborly relations and may save you money in the long run.
Finally, if the tree limb poses a threat and you are put on notice, yet fail to act, your neighbor could go to court seeking an injunction forcing you to take down the problematic branch.
You have a tricky situation. You may want to resolve the ownership issue. You may also want an arborist to look at the branch and give you a professional opinion on the health and safety of the branch (that report should be free). Be aware, if you own the tree and the arborist says that it poses a threat, you should then remove the branch. If you fail to do so, you could be held liable for any damage the limb causes.