The reason for the title: you have the same responsibility for your trees as you have for your pets. This means that you must keep them under your control at all times and you’re responsible for any damage they cause.
If you have pets, I’m sure you’re aware of the need to keep them on a leash when out in public and clean up after them. If your pet bites, or otherwise injures another person or causes property damage, you’re responsible.
Perhaps less well known are how tree owners are responsible for the “behavior” of their trees. One of the most frequently litigated matters involves trees infringing on neighboring property and the neighbor’s rights to take action.
According to lawyers Victor Merullo and Michael J. Valentine, authors of Arboriculture & The Law, property ownership extends to space above and below ground level. Therefore, if your tree’s branches extend over a neighbor’s yard, they have the right to remove the offending branches. They can cut the branches off at the lot line. The same holds true for roots that extend into neighboring property and cause damage.
A more practical, and neighborly, approach is for the adjoining property owner to discuss the problem with the owner of the offending tree. The whole tree probably needs pruning or root work and, hopefully, the owner will use the opportunity to do the right thing. Tree branches and roots may be putting the owner’s home in jeopardy, too. If things can’t be worked out and you need to take unilateral action against the neighbor’s tree, you can’t trespass onto the tree owner’s property and you can’t do anything that will put the tree in jeopardy.
Merullo and Valentine make it clear in the book that trees planted right on the lot line, or those that grow so they’re straddling the lot line, are owned jointly by both property owners. This means that you and your neighbor must agree before any work is done on border trees. Property owners whose trees grow across the lot line may have an unwelcome co-owner they have to consult on every tree-related issue. And, that neighbor, who has become the co-owner of trees they may not want, will be just as dissatisfied.
When planting trees near the border of your property, it’s best to plant them far enough into your yard that they’ll never grow across the lot line. If you’re the neighbor who becomes the unwitting co-owner of your neighbor’s tree(s), don’t prune or remove them without the other owner’s agreement or you may find yourself the defendant in a court case.
As you can see, there’s a lot more to tree ownership than digging a hole and planting it. That’s why we recommend annual tree inspections to be sure trees are sound and present little chance of failure or damage to your family and property and your neighbor’s. Ignorance is no excuse. Putting off inspections on the theory that what you don’t know won’t hurt you doesn’t work.
If you have questions about your trees or those impinging from a neighboring property, we have a Board Certified Master Arborist and nine Certified Arborists on staff who can answer your tree-related questions and can refer you to lawyers who have experience in tree-related cases if you need legal advice.