My neighbor’s tree seems to be declining, and I’m worried about it dropping limbs into my yard. Is my neighbor responsible for removing the limbs, or can I do this?
Diana Davidson, Oakland, CA
Tree branches that reach over property lines should be a concern for owners of both homes.
Photo/Illustration: Melissa Lucas
Liz Karns, an attorney in Illinois who deals with litigation, responds: The problem you describe is literally as old as our justice system. Old British law cases address this concern, as do early American judgments. There are several issues to consider: pruning, future damage, and neighborliness. First of all, in every state in the Union you have the right to self-help regarding pruning of branches that hang onto your property. This means that you can prune anything that spills over into your yard. But you cannot lean over the boundary line and prune into your neighbor’s yard—that is trespassing. You cannot force your neighbor to prune or do tree maintenance unless there are local laws or ordinances that address hazardous trees. These are fairly rare, but it is worth checking with your local municipality.
Second, if the tree appears to be declining in health, you need to notify your neighbor of your concern. This is known as giving notice of the potential liability that would result if damage occurred. The notice should be given orally and then in writing so that you both have a record of your concern. It’s hoped that, at this point, the neighbor will take the hint and address the issue with an arborist. In every state, the law differs as to the potential recovery for damage; in some states, it is a nuisance issue, while others treat it as a negligence problem.
Neighborliness is the last issue, but it is the first part of every legal problem. Be a good neighbor—take care of your own property and share the bounty of your garden. If you have a good relationship with your neighbor, it will be easier to resolve problems, should they arise.