Neighbors and Trees
Trees are a common source of disputes among neighbors. Tree tiffs can take many forms. Perhaps a tree falls on and damages a neighbor's property. Sometimes a neighbor's tree blocks what would be a scenic or otherwise pleasant view. In some cases, a neighbor's tree may actually block a view of something unpleasant. In that case, cutting down a tree may cause friction between neighbors. It doesn't matter that the tree might have been obstructing the view of a garbage collection site or freeway.
This article contains information and resources relating to trees and neighbors. It breaks down laws linked to disputes arising from neighbors and trees. It also discusses information on what you can do to protect the enjoyment of your land.
Trees and Property Lines
The rights and responsibilities of neighbors for trees that straddle property lines often cause some confusion. Disputes may arise from tree branches extending across property lines. Under relevant real estate law, the owner of the property where the trunk is located owns the tree.
Neighbors are free to trim branches that extend into their property. But they may be held liable for any trimming beyond the property line. And if a neighbor harms your tree, even unintentionally, they may be held liable for up to three times the replacement value. Such trimming can even be considered property damage. As such, a person could recover damages related to the trimming.
Neighbors are not free to pick fruit off neighbors' trees, even if branches hang over their property.
Some property lines are actually defined by a tree or row of trees that sits right on the boundary. In these instances, the owners of the properties on which the tree trunk sits all own the tree and are responsible for its upkeep. These are referred to as "boundary trees." These may be removed only with the consent of all parties involved.
Tree Damage Caused by Natural Events
Storms often cause heavy tree limbs or even entire trees to fall onto a neighbor's property. This can cause major damage or personal injuries. If it's your tree that totals your neighbor's car, for example, you aren't to blame for something beyond your control. But you still may be held liable under some circumstances. These types of incidents usually are referred to as "acts of God" — but only if it is determined that the owner of the tree took reasonable steps to maintain it.
You would likely be held liable for any damage caused by a poorly maintained tree with dead branches that fall on your neighbor's car. Check your homeowner's insurance policy, or ask your home insurance agent about the coverage you have in these situations. If you have a tree that looks like it could fall onto your neighbor's yard or house, you are responsible for taking the steps necessary to alleviate those risks.
You might not know whether a tree is a potential accident waiting to happen because it may not be visible from your perspective. If a neighbor alerts you to such a hazard, but you don't take care of it, they may seek a court order to have it removed. As with most neighbor issues, communicating with your neighbors and anticipating problems early usually eliminates the need for legal action.
In the case of natural disasters, laws become less strict on assigning liability under circumstances like those described above. In cases where it can be shown that damage occurred in ways completely beyond all parties' control, liability cannot be assigned.
As natural disasters grow more common with climate change, it's more important than ever to know about the extent of your liability for damage to a neighbor's property. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, major climate- and weather-related disasters resulted in damages of $2.59 trillion from 1980 to 2023. And that figure only includes disasters that caused at least $1 billion apiece in costs and damages. It's a good idea to be aware of the risks related to trees, particularly when it appears that “acts of god" from weather events have become more frequent.
Examples of natural disasters include:
- Hurricanes and tropical storms
- Tsunamis or storm surges
- Severe winter storms
If a tree falls from your land onto a neighbor's land during a natural disaster, causing structural damage to their property, you need not be concerned. When it is clear that blame cannot be assigned to any party as a result of a natural disaster, liability cannot be assigned.
Insurance Coverage for Tree Damage
Under the National Flood Insurance Program, victims of tree damage and other forms of damage caused by natural disasters can receive payouts to remedy the damage. They may also receive disaster relief grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Otherwise, people should also take out property insurance with coverage that includes natural disasters. If you're concerned about tree damage, make sure to verify that your property insurance and insurance company will cover such damage. Fallen trees can cause severe damage, and it's good to be prepared to make the necessary insurance claims. Even renters may purchase insurance plans (renter's insurance) that can cover tree damage.
While you'll often need to meet a deductible before plans will kick in and cover expenses, it's always better to have some kind of insurance. It's a reliable way to reduce the cost of repairs after damage caused by falling trees. Premiums on these plans are often not too expensive. Plan costs can vary based on a variety of factors, including home values and whether you're in a high-risk area. But when it comes to buying a new home, it's important to make sure you're covered in the event of emergencies.
Damage From Invasive Trees
Some types of trees and plants are considered invasive or harmful. A neighbor may have a cause of action if your property contains invasive species that spread to their property and cause damage.
Many types of bamboo are considered invasive and can spread quickly. The property owner may have to pay for excavation and plant removal.
Trees and View Ordinances
A property's value is often substantially derived from its views, whether it's an ocean vista, a tree-lined valley, or a city skyline. Regions and neighborhoods boasting exceptional views, from coastal California to streets bordering Central Park in New York City, typically have view ordinances in place to protect those views from obstruction.
These ordinances usually are limited to trees or other landscape elements. They typically require the person whose view was blocked to ask the property owner to remove or trim the tree first. If the neighbor either refuses to trim the tree or ignores your request, you may file a formal complaint with local authorities. But if the tree was planted before the ordinance was enacted, you may have to pay for the removal yourself.
Among other limitations to some view ordinances:
- Certain tree species and historical trees may be exempt.
- Trees a certain distance from your property line may be exempt.
- City-owned trees may be exempt.
Many homeowners associations (HOAs) have rules about tree maintenance, types of trees, and view regulations. For example, many Florida HOAs require a homeowner to remove dead palm fronds within a certain amount of time or face a fine.
Property Lawyers' Advice for Disputes and Enforcement
The best policy is generally to communicate with your neighbor before taking legal action. However, if you do need to make a formal move, talk to your property law attorney for any questions about tree disputes with a neighbor.
Learn About Neighbors and Trees
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