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Can I Throw Neighbors’ Tree Branches Back In Their Yard?

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Did you know that picking fruit from a branch of a neighbor’s tree that hangs in your yard is illegal

Sounds crazy, right? Well, that’s just one of the oddities of tree law, a branch of property law more convoluted than the roots of an ancient hemlock tree. 

Getting a handle on tree law will spare you a trunk of emotional, legal, and financial trouble when a tree owned by you, your neighbor, or your municipality becomes a thorny issue.  

Before diving right into tree law, remember that this is not intended as legal advice and you should seek legal counsel before you take any action! Check out our sources at the bottom of the article for further information.

Can I Throw My Neighbors’ Tree Branches Back In Their Yard?

Beautiful apple tree with branches overhanging a fence. It's illegal to pick the fruit that hangs on your property.

It is illegal to throw neighbors’ tree branches back into their yard, irrespective of whether the branches fell naturally or were cut by you. Such action constitutes illegal dumping, and the tree owner can litigate against you. You can however return the branches with the tree owner’s consent. 

“Hang on a second!” you may say. “Overhanging tree limbs are an invasion of my property line, surely?”

According to common law in most western countries, the tree, in its entirety, is the property of the tree owner, with limited rights afforded to neighbors concerning cutting, trimming, or removing parts of a neighbor’s tree that extend into the abutting property.

Let’s start with branches and roots:

  • Tree law in the US and most western countries stipulates that neighbors can trim branches and roots of a neighbor’s tree up to the property line.
  • Branches and roots cut by a neighbor cannot be thrown back into the tree owner’s yard without the tree owner’s permission.
  • Neighbors who have trimmed branches from a neighbor’s tree can remove them (along with fallen leaves) from their property as part of regular garden maintenance without the owner’s consent.

However, there are tricky provisos in tree law in certain jurisdictions that lean in favor of the tree owner:

  • A neighbor can cut encroaching branches and roots of a neighbor’s tree only if the branches and roots constitute a genuine nuisance or pose a clear and present danger to the health of the adjoining property and its residents.
  • Trimming roots and branches can be undertaken only if that trimming exercise poses no threat to the tree’s health.

If you’re shaking your head at what seem to be contradictory rules of engagement, read on. 

Tree law is deeply nuanced and seeing the proverbial forest from the trees concerning your arboreal rights will spare you unnecessary angst (and money) when a neighborly dispute over a tree arises.

Let’s take a closer look at the legalese… 

What Are the Rules Regarding Neighbors’ Trees?

can i throw neighbors tree branches back in their yard?

Tree law defines the rules governing ownership, liability, rights, and responsibilities of property owners and neighbors with regard to arboreal assets, be that trees, shrubs, or hedges. Tree law also acts to ensure the welfare and preservation of trees growing on private and public property. 

Determining tree ownership is the obvious starting point in grounding yourself in the ‘safe’ zone of tree law.

#1: Who owns a tree growing next to a private property boundary line?

Tree law states that ownership of a tree resides entirely with the owner of the property on whose land the trunk of the tree grows, irrespective of whether the branches of the tree extend over the property boundary line into an adjoining private property. 

#2: Who owns a tree when the trunk grows astride a property boundary line?

In the case of a boundary line that passes directly through the trunk of a tree, adjoining property owners share ownership of the tree. Any arboreal work undertaken on the tree must be conducted with the mutual consent of the owning neighbors.

  • The implied message from tree ownership laws is that property owners need to cooperate when it comes to managing trees that grow along their shared boundary lines.
How to Handle Neighbor's Trees

#3: What is self-help in tree law?

Self-help in tree law is a rule that allows the non-owners of trees growing alongside their property boundary lines to trim branches and roots when they become a genuine nuisance or pose a danger to life, limb, and property on their side of the boundary line. 

#4: Who is liable for damages when a tree falls on a neighbor’s house?

Should a tree fall and damage a neighboring house, the tree owner is liable for damages if the plaintiff can prove negligence on the owner’s part. 

  • If a branch encroaching on the neighbor’s land fell and damaged property, the non-owner cannot sue for damages if self-help was not undertaken.

#5: Does the homeowner’s insurance cover damage caused by fallen trees? 

Most homeowner insurance policies make provision for physical damage caused to persons and property by trees that fall in a violent storm, where the event is deemed an Act-of-God. If an insurer proves negligence on the tree owner’s part in managing the tree’s stability, the claim will be refuted. 

#6: Can a neighbor cut tree roots that damage infrastructure?

Roots from a neighboring tree can be cut when they pose a threat to existing infrastructure. The cutting of the roots of a neighbor’s tree must not harm the health of the tree. 

  • If a tree dies because its root system has failed due to cutting by a neighbor, the tree owner can sue the neighbor for damages.

#7: How much can a tree owner sue for when a neighbor kills their tree? 

Punitive costs for killing a tree vary from case to case but the rule of thumb is the cost of replacing the tree. Cases occur where the amount awarded to the plaintiff far exceeds the replacement cost of the tree and often includes legal costs. 

  • Several tree disputes have seen punitive costs amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars awarded to the plaintiff. 

#8: How does a neighbor protect against a dangerous tree?

If a neighbor deems a tree on an abutting property dangerous, a court injunction can be obtained to remove the tree. If the tree owner fails to remove a dangerous tree, a neighbor can obtain a notarized letter of concern that will act as proof of ‘deferred maintenance’ on the part of the tree owner. 

#9: Can a neighbor enter an adjoining property to trim overhanging tree branches?

A neighbor may not enter an adjoining property to trim overhanging branches. Such an act is considered trespassing and can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. A neighbor can only enter the adjoining property to trim branches with the owner’s permission.

  • It’s a horrifying fact you’ll find hard to believe, but neighbors have been shot dead during tree disputes!

To get to the cutting edge of tree law, one needs to look no further than California, the litigation capital of the world. Here goes…

Can I Throw My Neighbor’s Branches Back In California?

Man cleaning up a big tree branch from a neighbor's tree

Can I throw neighbors tree branches back in their yard in California?

You cannot legally throw your neighbor’s tree branches back into their yard in California. If you do, you’ll be liable for illegal dumping charges which your neighbor can litigate for if they feel their rights have been compromised or their privacy violated.  

California has arguably the most persnickety tree laws in the world, with a heavy bias towards tree conservation. In itself, that’s a noble endeavor. 

That being said, neighbors have to tread carefully come pruning season. Here’s why:

  • Neighbors can litigate for punitive costs if cutting branches has diminished a tree’s aesthetic value.
  • A tree owner can sue a neighbor if a fire on the defendant’s property killed a plaintiff’s tree. 
  • Neighbors need a certified arborist to inspect a tree before removing roots that are causing damage to infrastructure to assess whether root removal will jeopardize the health of the tree or not. 
  • Punitive damages can amount to three times the value given to the merits of the fallen tree.

Laugh or cry, these laws could be adopted by other jurisdictions at the drop of a hat (or tree). 

Whether you live in Texas, Florida, or the UK, know Cali tree law and you’ve got your bases covered!

Can I Do Anything About My Neighbor’s Tree?

Big tree overhanging walkway - can i throw neighbors tree branches back in their yard

Yes. You can prune the overhanging branches as long as you don’t harm the tree or spoil its aesthetic appeal. You can also cut invasive roots if they are damaging your property, but only after getting the go-ahead from a certified arborist. Most importantly, you should discuss the issue with your neighbor.

With such stringent laws and rules governing tree ownership, having a go at your neighbor’s trees without their permission or arboreal expertise will have your head on a legal block. 

Guidelines for Happy Neighbors and Healthy Trees

Follow these simple guidelines for happy neighbors and healthy trees:

  1. Connect with your neighbors to discuss tree ownership, tree care and maintenance, and any risk issues that may arise as the trees on your common boundaries grow and the seasons come and go. 
  2. Invest in a tall ladder.
  3. Buy a good pruning saw.
  4. Share the costs of a professional tree service when necessary (much cheaper than a lawyer!).
  5. Get insurance cover for fallen tree damage.
  6. Always keep it friendly!

Learn from Trees

Trees give us so much – oxygen, shade, fruit, firewood, a mystical place to build a fort! Trees also have a silent wisdom we all can learn from (video under ‘useful videos’ below). 

Did you know that trees of different species often share a common root system? Isn’t that a beautiful pointer to the truth that we humans need to be reminded of how cooperating with our neighbors is the best way to survive and thrive?

People can be stubborn at the best of times and neighbors can be particularly hardheaded when it comes to their understanding of property rights. Trees lining property lines benefit both sides of the fence and neighbors should act as co-custodians of these trees for the benefit of their families and community.

It’s simple good ol’ fashioned neighborliness! 

We hope our guide to tree law helps pave the way to hassle-free tree co-parenting between neighbors!

Keep reading!

References and Sources

  1. https://www.mass.gov/info-details/massachusetts-law-about-neighbors-and-trees
  2. https://guides.sll.texas.gov/neighbor-law/trees
  3. https://www.agrisk.umd.edu/post/frequently-asked-questions-can-i-cut-my-neighbor-s-tree-back-from-our-property-line
  4. https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/types/trees/the-law
  5. https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/who-is-responsible-for-the-trees-a-citizen-guide-to-trees-in-the-community
  6. https://www.gov.uk/how-to-resolve-neighbour-disputes/high-hedges-trees-and-boundaries
  7. https://guides.loc.gov/neighbor-law/legal-disputes-concerning-trees#s-lib-ctab-20083718-2
  8. https://www.washingtonpost.com/realestate/whos-responsible-when-a-tree-falls/2012/11/02/feece3d6-21c7-11e2-8448-81b1ce7d6978_story.html
  9. https://treeandneighborlawblog.com/
  10. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/tree-law-is-a-gnarly-twisted-branch-of-the-legal-system
  11. https://www.chicagotribune.com/real-estate/ct-xpm-2013-08-22-sc-cons-0822-housing-counsel-20130822-story.html
  12. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/07/06/tree-trimming-at-root-of-neighbors-court-dispute/29792005/
  13. https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1803&context=fac_artchop
  14. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2763296
  15. https://www.findlaw.com/realestate/neighbors/conflicts-involving-trees-and-neighbors.html

Useful Videos

Lawtube.com – Can you trim your neighbor’s tree overhanging your property?

Can you trim your neighbor's tree overhanging your property?

Florida tree law – am I allowed to trim my neighbor’s tree if it hangs over my property line?

Am I Allowed To Trim My Neighbors Tree If It Hangs Over My Property Line?

Lawtube.com – Can you cut the roots on your neighbor’s tree?

Can you cut the roots on your neighbor's tree?

Tree on Property Line – Who Is Responsible?

Tree Laws: Tree on Property Line, Who is Responsible?

Harassed by Angry Neighbor Demanding Tree Removal (Game of Trees)

Harassed by Angry Neighbor Demanding Tree Removal

Neighbor Cut Big Roots on This Tree

Neighbor Cut BIG Roots

Secret Language of Trees

The Secret Language of Trees

https://youtu.be/84lbLIRrOkg – idiot kids w/basketball court cut neighbor’s tree 

https://youtu.be/9HiADisBfQ0 – secret language of trees – share roots – trees live in cooperative harmony 

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