TRIMMING YOUR NEIGHBOR’S TREES

Many property disputes arise from trees.  Typically, but not always, you are allowed to trim the branches of a neighbor’s tree that extend over onto your property.  The exception is if the trimming affects the overall health of the tree.

If a tree’s trunk is located on both sides of the property line, the situation becomes more complex.  Although there is no Washington case on this particular issue, decisions from other states have held that you are co-owners of the tree, and you have to agree on any action affecting the tree. Finally, there is probably nothing that you can do if a neighbor’s tree is shedding on your property.  That’s just something you have to live with in the Pacific Northwest.

DAMAGE FROM TREES

If a tree overhangs a neighbor’s property, it may pose risk of injury or damage. A tree that isn’t trimmed properly can block a neighbor’s scenic view. In Washington, the law protects property owners from tree-related damage.

  • If your property is damaged by a neighbor’s tree, you may be entitled to recover compensation for the damage, depending on the situation.
  • If someone damages your tree, you can recover actual damages, meaning what you paid for the tree or what it would cost to replace the tree. In addition, if the damage inflicted on your tree was deliberate, rather than accidental, you may sue for triple actual damages.

IF A NEIGHBOR’S TREE DAMAGES YOUR PROPERTY

A tree owner is responsible for damage caused by his tree if his failure to maintain the tree contributed to the damage. Specifically:

  • If a neighbor allows a tree to grow onto your property to the extent that it uproots a fence, that would be considered an encroachment onto your property. The tree owner would be required to remove the offending tree and compensate you for replacing the fence.
  • If all or part of a neighbor’s tree falls on your property, the neighbor may or may not be responsible for damages to your property.
    • If the damage was solely the result of a storm or act of God, not due to any neglect on the part of the owner, the tree owner will not be responsible as the damage could not have been foreseen. In this case, your homeowners insurance would be responsible for your damages.
    • If, however, the tree was in poor health or a limb appeared precarious and the owner failed to properly maintain the tree, the owner may well be responsible for resulting damage when the tree or a limb falls, even if this happens during a storm.
  • Leaves, bean pods, or acorns which fall from a neighbor’s tree and end up on your property are considered a natural occurrence and are your responsibility. The law would not regard this tree debris as “damage.”

You do not have to wait around to become a victim of your neighbor’s tree. In every state, homeowners have the right to remove branches and roots that stray from a neighbor’s tree onto their property. In other words, if a limb from your neighbor’s tree is overhanging your property and you fear it may fall and cause you damage, you can preemptively cut the limb. However, in order to take advantage of the protections afforded you under the law, you must first follow certain procedures.

  • You must warn or give notice to the tree owner and allow him a chance to correct the problem. If the tree owner does nothing, you may take action.
  • As a general rule, you may only trim a neighbor’s encroaching tree up to the boundary line, meaning you may only cut a limb to the point it crosses onto your property, not all the way to the trunk of the tree.
  • If trimming the tree requires entering your neighbor’s property, you must first obtain his permission. There is an exception to this requirement if a limb threatens to cause imminent and grave harm, in which case you are not required to obtain permission before taking preventive action.
  • You may not cut the entire tree down or destroy the structural integrity of the tree by improper trimming.

IF A NEIGHBOR DAMAGES YOUR TREE

To run afoul of the law, your neighbor does not have to chop down your tree. It is enough to cause damage to the health of your tree. For example:

  • Your neighbor has the legal right to trim branches of your tree if they hang over the property line, but if the trimming seriously injures or kills your tree, your neighbor will be liable to you for the damage done.
  • Similarly, if your neighbor uses a chemical in his or her yard to destroy unwanted plants or roots, and the chemical seeps onto your property killing one of your trees, your neighbor will be liable.

RECOVERING DAMAGES

In general, you must meet two requirements in order to claim compensation for a damaged tree:

  • Your own property must be damaged. Specifically, if a neighbor trims the part of your tree that hangs over his property line causing that part of the tree to look terrible but not harming it in any way, you have no right to recovery.
  • The tree in question must not create an immediate danger to others. Unsound trees that threaten a neighboring property are not under the same legal protection as healthy trees. In some circumstances, for example, if a dead tree is about to fall, a neighbor can even enter an owner’s property without permission in order to take action to prevent harm.

Providing these criteria are met, when someone damages or destroys your tree, you can recover the amount of your actual loss. This recovery is available even if the damage was caused by an honest mistake. A final dollar figure for actual loss may include:

  • The cost of replacing the tree. You are entitled to replace the tree with one of reasonable size, although you may not be able to exactly match the size of the lost tree.
  • Diminished property value. If replacing the tree is impossible, you can recover the decrease in your property value caused by the loss of the tree.
  • Out-of-pocket expenses. You can recover money reasonably spent trying to save an injured tree or removing a dead one, obtaining appraisals, cleaning up debris, repairing the yard, and time missed from work in order to deal with the tree damage.

If your homeowners insurance covers some part of your expenses, you will need to deduct that amount from what you are able to recover from your neighbor.