You have a neighbor complaining about a tree on your property. What do you have to do? What does the law say?
We want to offer some general information about how the law treats trees and the damage they can cause and offer an approach you can use if a neighbor has an issue with trees or bushes on your property. We do not offer legal advice – for that you would need to hire an attorney – but general information about rights and obligations when it comes to trees. Though most states take the same approach, you must be aware of local laws that may supersede state law.
Overview of How the Law Treats Your Trees
Let’s define your trees. They include any tree where the entire trunk is on your property. This would include trees you planted as well as any tree naturally occurring on your property
Trees that straddle a property line and are partially on your property and partially on your neighbor’s property are known as boundary trees and different rules apply.
Most laws view trees as part of nature and no one person has a legal obligation for that tree. This circumstance changes if you have notice that a tree creates a hazard and you fail to act. If you know that a tree poses a threat and you do nothing about it, that can be viewed as negligence and you can be held liable for damages or injuries caused by that tree.
You need to ask yourself if you are aware of a tree on your property that poses a threat. We know that even a healthy tree can fall in a storm so that does not count. We are talking about dead or damaged trees or trees that have grown in such a way that they create a threat or actually cause damage. We are talking about dead trees that are badly leaning or branches dangling over someone’s property.
There are two types of notice that you can make you liable for damage caused by a tree: actual and constructive. As a property owner, you have actual notice if someone warns you about the hazard. For example, if a neighbor gives you a letter documenting the threat caused by a tree, particularly if there is an arborist’s report attached to that letter, that letter can document actual notice.
Constructive notice means that the situation was so obvious and easily seen that you should have known about the hazard. Constructive notice is less certain than actual notice. You can read more about notice here.
Your Neighbor’s Rights to Trim a Tree on Your Property
Your neighbor has the right to trim or remove any part of a tree or bush that extends over the property line. There are some caveats:
- Your neighbor is responsible for all costs associated with the action he takes. If he hires someone to do the work, he cannot send you the bill.
- Your neighbor cannot enter your property to do this work unless you give him permission to do so.
- Your neighbor is responsible for any debris. If your neighbor cuts down a branch, he must dispose of it. Any clippings or wood is not your responsibility.
- Your neighbor cannot kill the tree. If your neighbor’s action kills the tree, you may have an action against your neighbor to recover for the cost of the tree.
Actions Your Neighbor Might Take
We always recommend that neighbors talk to each other and try to work out differences amongst themselves. What actions might your neighbor take that should concern you?
- Your neighbor might put a complaint in writing. By putting something in writing, your neighbor is putting you on notice about a hazard and that notice can make you liable for damage caused by a tree. The more specific the letter, the stronger the notice. If the neighbor includes an arborist’s report, that makes the notice stronger. The stronger the notice, the more serious you need to take it. As discussed earlier, actual notice can make you liable. You can contest the validity of the claim, but you need to understand the risk.
- Your neighbor can take you to court to force action. Your neighbor can file a claim in court seeking a court order forcing you to take action. You need to respond to any court action because failing to do so will result in a default judgment granting your neighbor’s request. You may be able to defeat a request for a court order, but only if you appear in court to fight it.
What Are Your Options When a Neighbor Complains about a Tree?
You should carefully consider what your neighbor says and what information your neighbor presents. You should pay attention to two issues:
- The validity of your neighbor’s point: Ask yourself: is the neighbor right? Does your tree create a hazard or pose a threat? Does your tree damage or threaten property?
- What evidence does your neighbor present? The stronger the evidence – such as an arborist’s report – the more you should consider taking action.
We always recommend that neighbors work to find an amicable solution. Is there a way you can trim your trees that would appease your neighbor? If money is a concern, can your neighbor contribute to a remedy?
If you disagree with your neighbor, you may want to ask for an expert opinion. You can consult with certified arborist to ask his opinion of your neighbor’s claims.
You should also consult your homeowner’s insurance. Will it cover you if a tree falls and causes damage? If you have been given notice and fail to act, will your insurance company disclaim – meaning they will not cover you? If you receive written notice from your neighbor, you should notify your insurance company. They may provide the funds for you to take action so they could avoid making a larger payment at a later date.
What If You Refuse to Trim or Remove a Tree Despite Your Neighbor’s Complaints?
Your neighbor has complained and you do not want to take action. What risk do you run? First and foremost, you do not want to do anything that would result in someone being hurt. If you think you are acting appropriately, there are several likely outcomes:
- Nothing happens: The tree does not fall or cause any damage. Your neighbor may not like it, but there is no issue here.
- The tree falls and causes damage: Your neighbor may pursue you to pay for those damages. Your insurance company may cover you (meaning they will provide a lawyer and pay for the damages), but you need to check your policy. If you did not notify the insurance company about the neighbor’s complaint, the insurance might try to disclaim coverage.
- Your neighbor takes you to court: You will need to defend yourself against a motion that would require you to take action or to pay for damages your tree caused.
Each situation is different, so you have to ask yourself how much you want to fight and what risk you run. When in doubt, you may want to consult an attorney.