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How is ownership of a tree decided?

Trees And Neighbors

Howard Gould (Neighbor Law Expert, Finestone & Richter) gives expert video advice on: Do I need to call the police after my tree is damaged or destroyed?; Is damage to my tree covered by my homeowner's insurance?; Can I trim a neighbor's tree? and more...

How is ownership of a tree decided?

Ownership of a tree is determined by where the trunk is located. If the trunk is on your property, it's your tree. If the trunk is on the neighbor's property, then it's the neighbor's tree. If the trunk is on the boundary line, it belongs to both you and your neighbor.

What are an owner's rights when a tree is damaged?

If your neighbor damages your tree, you can sue him for the damage that he has caused to that tree. If that damage has been done willfully and maliciously, in some states like California, you may be able to get extra damages. We have treble damages in California if somebody willfully and maliciously damages a tree. In some jurisdictions you may be able to collect what are called punitive damages, which are intended to punish somebody for their conduct, and those are damages beyond the damages needed to compensate you for your actual loss.

Are there any criminal penalties if a tree is damaged deliberately?

There may be criminal penalties and it will depend on the jurisdiction. There are always criminal penalties for destroying somebody's property. There may be specific criminal penalty that relates to trees depending on where you live.

Do I need to call the police after my tree is damaged or destroyed?

It's always a good idea to have the police come to fill out a police report. It is a record of what's happened. It shows how serious you felt the conduct was. Those police officers may well be available as witnesses, especially if they've talked to the neighbor and the neighbor has made statements to them about what happened. So yes, if it's happened around the time when you're there - and even if it hasn't, maybe you were out of town and something's happened, it's a good idea to call the police so at least in that fashion you've documented what the problem is. They may be able to help you by doing an investigation that you aren't having to pay for by having to hire a lawyer and/or an investigator to try and find out what happened.

Is damage to my tree covered by my homeowner's insurance?

It may be covered, and it'll depend on what your insurance policy says, and what it is that caused the damage. So, you'll have to take a look at your homeowner's insurance policy, potentially talk to your agent, and maybe talk to a lawyer to determine whether the insurance policy covers your loss concerning the tree. Another problem to be aware of, in terms of your insurance coverage is; even if your loss is covered, the insurance policy may set its own limits on what will be paid for a tree. Trees are very expensive. If you actually sue somebody for damage to a tree, you'll end up hiring an expert, generally an arborist, to help value the tree. People are very surprised when they find out how much a mature tree is actually worth. You could be talking about $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 for one tree.

When is a tree considered the responsibility of the city?

The city will generally take responsibility if the tree is planted in its right of way. For example, you have a street in front of your house and there's a tree right next to the street, and then there's a city sidewalk closer to your house than the tree may be. That tree is probably in the city right of way. The city may well have planted the tree, but even if they didn't, they are likely to take responsibility for that tree. If it's causing problems, they will tend to that tree.

Will the city help me with tree troubles if the tree is not in the city's right of way?

It'll depend on the city where you're located and what their practices and policies may be regarding trees. And it may also depend on what damage the tree is causing. If it's your tree but it's causing damage to a city sidewalk for which the city may have liability, they may be willing to come in and help with that problem.

If I damage a neighbor's tree, what should I do?

Probably the best thing to do if you damage a neighbor's tree is evaluate what the damage is, what's repairable, and maybe get some advice. Again, think about how you're going to approach the neighbor, and then make the approach to the neighbor. Communicate with him about what's happened and whatever solution you may have come up with for the problem of the damaged tree.

Can I trim a neighbor's tree?

Generally, trimming a tree is one of the very few areas where the law allows self-help, where you can do something without first going to court to get permission. If those branches of a neighbor's tree are overhanging your property, generally you can trim those back to the property line. Obviously, you have to be careful that you're not damaging or destroying the tree, for which you might have liability if what you've done has been done negligently. But, again, it's one of the very rare occasions where you can use self-help, and that is to trim the neighbor's tree branches back to the boundary line. In terms of the roots of the neighbor's tree, when they come over on your property, they are technically trespassing on your property. The rule in California isn't quite as clear-cut as it is with tree branches. Generally, unless those roots are actually causing your property some damage, you really should leave them alone, because you can have liability for cutting those roots if it damages the neighbor's tree, and you really don't have a right to touch them unless they're damaging your property.

If my tree's roots damage a neighbor's septic system, am I responsible?

Your tree's roots are, in a sense, trespassing on the neighbor's property. It's certainly allowed for those roots to grow over there; it's a very common issue where roots are generally underground and they're not causing problems. If they are causing problems to the neighbor's property, in the first instance you're going to have responsibility. But if the neighbor knew about the problem, failed to take action and the problem became worse because the neighbor allowed it to get worse, then you may have some defenses or there may be some limitation on damages.

If a tree separates the properties of two neighbors, who owns it?

If the trunk of the tree is on the boundary line the tree is owned by both parties. We have an ironic situation with this issue of a tree on the boundary line because sometimes you are in a worse situation than you would be if that tree was on the neighbors property. If the tree is on the neighbors property you have a right to trim the tree back to the boundary line without asking them. If the neighbors tree is growing to thick and causing some problems you can talk to the neighbor. If the neighbors tree is damaging you, you can ask them to do something and possibly, and then take them to court. However, if the tree is on the boundary line you have to reach agreement with the neighbor because you both own it and technically you really cant go trimming the tree and doing other things until you've talked to the neighbor and obtained their permission because you're co-owners of that tree.

What can I do if my neighbor's tree looks unstable?

Certainly you want to contact the neighbor. Let them know about the problem and ask that they take some action. You want to monitor what they're doing and make certain that they're taking some action because you certainly don't want that tree falling on your house or on your yard, and possibly not only damaging property, but injuring someone. If the neighbor refuses to take some action, you should get some professional to help you evaluate what the risk really make be. If there's a great risk, you may want to then consult a lawyer and try to take some legal action. However, the problem that you have is that it may be difficult to know whether that tree is really at risk. Until it actually falls over and causes the damage, you don't know whether a judge is going to be willing to step in and help you in some way, possibly requiring the neighbor to remove a tree from his property.