Nothing is so lovely as a tree—or so likely to cause disputes between otherwise happy neighbors. “My neighbor’s trees hang over my yard, fence and house. I cut them back, but then he throws the clippings back on my side,” Michael Johnson of New York City explained. “Who’s really responsible?”
Experts say few homeowners understand the laws and legal rights that apply to trees. Even fewer realize that ornamental trees can have a monetary value that can be recovered in court should anything happen to them, explained Bill Elmendorf, an instructor at Penn State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“Some trees can be replaced easily for about $500 to $2,500,” Elmendorf says. “An older or landmark tree, believe it or not, can have an assigned value of $25,000 to $60,000, based on size, species, condition and location.”
Here’s what homeowners should know:
- If a tree’s trunk is entirely on one person’s property, the tree belongs to that person. If a tree straddles the boundary between two properties, the adjoining property owners jointly own the tree. Neither can remove it or prune it without the other owner’s permission, nor can either prune it so severely that it damages the rest of the tree.
- Property owners have the right to trim back trees if the branches and roots extend over the boundary line. But they cannot prune past the border–and they have to dispose of the clippings.
- Don’t throw the branches you cut back on your neighbor’s property.
- And don’t even think about picking any fruit. The fruit of a tree belongs to the owner. You can usually take the fruit that falls in your yard. But don’t try to outsmart the law by pruning branches just to get the fruit.
- If you own a tree, you have to maintain it.
- Even so, if a neighbor’s tree falls on your property, it’s probably your problem. Insurance companies generally call falling trees acts of God, unless you can prove you warned the owner the tree was dead or dying.