Trouble with Trees

While the Iowa case law on trees on private property is not definitive in Iowa, there are some basic rules to follow regarding trimming and care of trees on private property. Many times there is a dispute between neighbors regarding who owns the tree, who is responsible for the tree, and what one neighbor or the other can do regarding a tree which hangs on both of their properties.

Ownership is determined by the trunk, but limbs of the tree that stretch over the property line can be handled a few different ways. In a dispute between Neighbor A and Neighbor B over  a Tree, where the trunk of Tree is entirely in Neighbor A’s property, but the limbs extend to Neighbor B’s, Neighbor B does have some legal avenues of dealing with the overreaching limbs.Tree destroyed by storm and cut down

 First, Neighbor B could do nothing and let the  limbs grow as it pleases.

 Second, Neighbor B could ask Neighbor A to  trim the tree.

 Thirdly, Neighbor B may trim or cut all the  limbs the limbs that are on his side property  up to, and up and down the property line, but  cannot cross the property line. This is done  at Neighbor B’s own expense

 In the first option, Neighbor B would not have  any liability if one of the limbs fell into his  yard or caused some other damage because  he would not have been the one maintaining  the tree and therefore would have no  knowledge that the tree may have been unsafe. Neighbor B’s insurance, however would be necessary for any repairs for damage on Neighbor B’s covered property.  Neighbor A’s insurance only covers Neighbor A’s property.

In option two, if an obvious issue with a tree is apparent, (presents a significant potential dangerous issue, hanging limb, etc.) the request to trim or take care of the problem should be put in writing.

In option three, Neighbor B assumes some risk in trimming the tree. While he is allowed to trim any limb in a reasonable manner that comes onto his property, in doing so, he is maintaining the tree and thus has more knowledge about the tree. In this instance, if Neighbor B notices that the tree is diseased, dying or dead, or unsafe, they must contact Neighbor A and give them written notice that the tree needs to be trimmed or removed depending on the issue. 

Tree limbs trimmed by electric company
By doing this, the financial burdens of caring for the tree AND for any damage it may cause to Neighbor B’s property  would now fall to the owner of the tree, Neighbor A.  The key is that  Neighbor B  has the affirmative duty to inform and mailing the notice by certified mail is likely the best way to prove the notification has been sent.

When Neighbor B takes it upon themselves to trim/maintain the tree on his side of the property line he not only assumes the responsibility of reporting diseased, dying or dead conditions, but now also assumes any damage directly related to the tree that comes from Neighbor B cutting off the limbs of the tree. If the tree dies because of Neighbor B’s actions, Neighbor A can be reimbursed for the cost of removal and replacement. That’s why If unsure of how to properly trim a tree, consult or hire a tree expert.  

Despite ownership belonging to one neighbor,  typically, the branches and limbs of the tree  that cross the property line are subject to the  other neighbor’s authority. 

The Apples on this tree would belong to the owners of the tree, neighbors would need permission to pick them even if the limbs were across the property line
The exception to  the limb rule would be if the tree in question  was fruit bearing. As fruit is the product of the  tree, the fruit belongs to the owner of the  tree. Courts do differ on the ownership of fruit  that has fallen to the ground, but they are  clear that a neighbor cannot pick off fruit on a  limb on their property, if the trunk of the tree  is wholly on the other neighbor’s property.

 In the event that a tree exists on the property  line so that the trunk is on both Neighbor A’s and Neighbor B’s property, they both share responsibility and liability for the tree. Both neighbors must take care of the tree and would split the costs in the event the tree needed to be professionally trimmed,removed or replaced for any reason. Similarly, if one neighbor did wish to remove the tree, they must get the permission of the other neighbor before they can take it down.

In order to be held liable either as the sole owner of a tree or shared owner of a tree, the owner must have actual or constructive knowledge that the tree presents such a situation (ex. diseased, dying, dead) that the owner of the tree must deal with it, either by treating, trimming, or removing the tree. In an urban setting, the property owner has a much higher standard and is expected to know about all visible signs that could indicate with any given tree on the property. 

In rural settings, however, there is typically a lower standard of care as there are more trees on larger lots making it more difficult to have actual or constructive knowledge that there may be an issue. 

Bush trimmed to the line between the sidewalk and property owner's yardIt is important to note that some insurance companies may reimburse an owner for the removal of a tree which has fallen on covered real property (the house, shed,fence, etc) and for any damage a fallen tree did to real property, however if it falls and does not strike anything covered by insurance the owner is responsible for all removal costs and repairs. Because many policies differ, it would be a good idea to check with the insurance company to determine what costs may be covered or reimbursed.
Bottom line: If a neighbor’s tree falls into the property owner’s yard during a storm or other such natural disaster, the neighbor is generally not liable for that damage.  The property owner is responsible for their own property. However, if the tree trunk is wholly in the neighbor’s yard, but there are overreaching limbs, a property owner can trim or cut the branches up to the property line and has the duty to warn the owner of the tree of any damage, disease, or death of the tree.

The rules mentioned above are guidelines taken from surrounding states and guides provided by arborists. They create a “reasonable person standard”, or what the minimum required action of a reasonable person of society must take to ensure the safety and well being of the rest of society.

Photo: -epilson- Flickr CC

Iowa Association of REALTORS

This article was written as a collaboration of IAR Staff members or invited subject matter experts.

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