One of the most common disputes between adjacent landowners involves trees. Neighbors often argue over who owns a tree or who is liable if a tree causes damage or is damaged. Chances are, if you ever have owned property you have experienced a tree problem with your neighbor.
So let's answer some of the most frequently asked questions regarding neighbors and their trees.
Can I trim branches or roots that extend over into my yard?
In most instances, yes. You have the right to trim a branch or root all the way up to the property line - with a few exceptions. You must be careful not to trim a branch that is producing fruit because the fruit is your neighbor's property. You also need to be careful not to go onto your neighbor's property without permission or injure the overall health of the tree. In Utah, if you injure your neighbor's tree, you are liable for three times the amount of damages. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-1002.
A tree sits right on the property line, who owns it?
Both owners share responsibility and ownership of the tree if any part of the trunk is on the property line. Ownership is determined by the location of the trunk (regardless of where the branches or roots are) and the trunk must be entirely located on your property in order for it to be solely yours. If both neighbors share ownership of the tree then both neighbors must consent to its removal.
What happens if someone injures or kills my tree?
You are legally entitled to compensation of up to three times the value of the tree. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-1002. Most trees cost anywhere from $50 to $5,000 to replace. So for that price range a court can award you anywhere from $150 to $15,000. Hopefully though, you can avoid a lawsuit by telling your neighbor the law and working together to come to a solution.
What rights do I have if my neighbor's tree damages my property?
It depends on how reasonably your neighbor acted. Courts use a reasonable care standard to determine liability. For example, if your neighbor's tree was obviously in a dangerous state (about to fall over) and your neighbor did nothing despite your requests, then it is very likely a court will require your neighbor to pay you for any damages the fallen tree caused. If you do notice a dangerous tree but your neighbor isn't willing to do anything about, then contact your local city government. Most city ordinances will require landowners to safely remove trees that are a danger to the public.
My neighbor's leaves fall into my yard, who's responsibility is it to rake them up?
Unfortunately it is your responsibility. The Utah Supreme Court said that the travel of leaves, needles, twigs, branches and other tree litter onto adjoining lots is a natural condition and that a tree owner is not responsible for leaves that naturally fall or are blown onto another's property. See Cannon v. Neuberger, 268 P.2d 425 (Utah 1954).
If you have a tree dispute with your neighbor, welcome to the club. It is a common occurrence and for that reason there are already laws in place to resolve these issues. If you are unsure about your tree problem, schedule a free consultation to go over your options.