“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.”
- William Shakespeare
“That which we call our neighbor’s tree would
by any other word be as nice
only if its branches did not fall in our yards,
if it did not lean over our house, if it did not
threaten to fall on our house, and if our neighbor
would do what we say about the tree.”
- Homeowners Everywhere
I get a lot of questions from homeowners about trees on their neighbors’ properties. I am going to use this edition of A Legal Moment to address the most common inquiries in a question and answer format.
My neighbor’s tree has branches that extend over our property line. Can I cut the branches off?
Yes, at the property line, but you
may not enter onto the neighbor’s property to cut the branches at the
trunk because that would constitute trespass. The reasoning
underlying this conclusion is that the branches are a nuisance to your
property, and you are entitled to a self-help remedy to prevent the
There are a few qualifications.
First, your remedy is most likely limited to cutting the
branches and not to obtaining money damages in a court case. The
general rule is that, absent significant damage to a structure, a
landowner is not entitled to compensation for harm caused by trees
located on a neighbor’s property. If, however, there is
significant damage to a structure, which is most often tree roots
damaging a foundation or driveway, then you are entitled to seek
Second, if you are seeking monetary compensation, you may
not be successful if the tree is naturally occurring, as opposed to
being planted or maintained. Courts typically deny monetary
compensation when a tree is naturally occurring. Obviously, this
distinction may be difficult to prove. As a result, there is a
tendency in the court decisions of some states to do away with the
distinction between naturally occurring and planted or maintained trees.
Third, again in the context of monetary recovery, there may
be a prerequisite to notify the neighbor of the harm you are
experiencing. In some courts, a combination of severe structural
damage, such as roots penetrating a well, and notice to the neighbor
owning the tree create an affirmative duty in the neighbor to stop the
harm from worsening and to pay compensation.
Can I require my neighbor to remove
a tree that is damaged, diseased, or rotten because it might fall and
injure someone or cause property damage?
You cannot require the removal, but if you notify your
neighbor of the dangerous condition, you create a duty in the neighbor
to correct the dangerous condition. If your neighbor does not take
corrective action after you give notice of a dangerous condition, the
neighbor will be liable for personal injuries or property damage caused
by the dangerous tree. The neighbor cannot unilaterally shift the
responsibility for taking corrective action to you, but if you accept
such responsibility and do nothing, you will likely recover nothing for
future injury or property damage. North Carolina follows a rule
that bars recovery when a harmed person is contributorily
negligent. If you accept responsibility for correcting the
dangerous situation and do nothing, you can recover nothing because your
own negligence contributed to your harm.
Can I trim, or cut down, a tree that is on the property line between me and my neighbor?
Yes, if your neighbor agrees, or if you are willing to
compensate your neighbor for any loss of value to your neighbor.
When a property line runs right through the trunk of a tree, the general
rule is that both landowners own the tree jointly in a form of
ownership called tenants in common and are subject to the rules
governing such joint ownership.1
First, each co-owner has the right to possess and use the entire
jointly owned property. For a tree, that means either owner can
cut the tree down and take, or dispose of, the wood. However, the
second rule makes any owner who cuts a commonly owned tree liable to the
other owner for that owner’s share of the value.
This situation is one of the hardest tree disputes to
resolve when there is disagreement. The best approach is to
attempt to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement about the tree.
The Mediation Center in Asheville offers a service to help neighbors
resolve any dispute they may be having and could be helpful in this
situation. If agreement is not possible, either owner would be
allowed to remove the tree. If you find yourself having to take
this step, I strongly suggest giving a lot of advance notice to the
neighbor who disagrees with you.
could find no decision from North Carolina stating this rule, but it
predominates in other states with occasional variations. For example, in
one state, the neighboring owners must have planted the tree together
or stated some joint intent for it to be a co-owned boundary tree.
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