Your Legal Rights When A Neighbor's Trees Encroach On Your Property

Many private property owners like trees. They look good. When large enough, their leaf canopies provide shade during the summer. 

But trees also grow. As trees mature, their root systems spread underground (or sometimes visibly right on the surface). And their canopies widen, crossing property lines and sometimes causing branches or limbs to hang over neighbors' houses or buildings. Many people don't realize this, but when your trees' roots, branches, or limbs cross onto someone else's property, even in the air, you’re trespassing on that neighbor's property. 

Of course, usually neither the owner of the tree nor the neighbor do anything about it. But sometimes neighbor disputes occur, soon devolving into arguments over everything, including encroaching tree roots, limbs, and branches. Other times, the roots or limbs legitimately pose an actual or future property damage issue. So what can be done legally in that situation?             

A healthy tree with limbs or branches that simply overhang neighboring property or whose roots cross property lines without damaging anything is the simplest situation to address legally. The owner of a healthy tree whose roots, limbs, or branches are encroaching on neighboring property has no legal obligation to do anything about the natural growth of that tree. Adjoining landowners would have the right, at their expense, to cut back to the property line any such encroaching components of the tree, but that's it. If in doing so, the neighboring landowner injures the tree or causes it to be destroyed, that landowner could actually be liable to the tree owner for money damages. The right to cut encroaching roots, limbs, or branches back to the property line exists regardless of whether they're causing or may cause a nuisance or property damage.   

The analysis changes when encroaching trees pose actual or imminent harm to neighboring property. Tree roots may be damaging the adjoining land or structures (usually foundations) on the neighboring land. Tree limbs can be about to fall or actually fall and damage property on the neighboring land. The neighboring landowner has much greater rights against the tree owner in such situations. The tree owner can be required by a court to cut back the encroaching tree roots or limbs, even if not damage has yet occurred but is merely imminent. Under certain circumstances, a tree owner can also be sued for property damage caused by encroaching tree roots or limbs.

Sometimes, the "encroachment" of a tree from one property to another goes beyond spreading roots, branches, or limbs. Instead, a limb or the entire tree falls. The tree owner may be liable for personal injuries or property damage caused by such an incident, but that's not an easy claim to prove. At least under Iowa law, the tree owner isn't automatically liable in such circumstances. Negligence must be proved. That means the tree owner is not liable for damage caused by the fallen tree or limb unless the owner knew or should have known that there was a risk of that happening. So a tree owner that allows a noticeably dying or diseased tree to remain on the owner's property may later be liable if, as a result of the tree's death or disease, a limb or the entire tree falls and hurts someone or damages property. But a tree owner likely would not be liable in a situation where a perfectly healthy tree (or a tree that appears perfectly health and is not known to be diseased) or a limb from such a tree falls, perhaps during a storm. That's likely be considered an "Act of God," and thus nobody's fault.

Harley Erbe