I have a healthy 20-year-old oak tree that my neighbor is convinced is going to fall on his house. It provides shade and privacy for me, and it’s a beautiful specimen.
How do I explain to my neighbor that removing the tree is not going to happen? Our community consists of small lots with large homes.
Who is liable if a tree falls onto a neighbor’s property? My tree is in a corner of my lot abutting three other homes in our neighborhood.
I want to be a good neighbor, but I also don’t want to be a pushover.
Good Neighbor in Georgia
It’s illegal to cut down a neighbor’s tree without their permission or a ruling from a local court, so you have the upper hand — or branch, in this case — in this dispute. If you woke up one morning to find your tree had been cut down while you slept, you would have the right to file a police report. You’d also want to talk to your insurance company, your attorney and — of course — your neighbor.
But before it comes to that, you should remind your neighbor of your rights, which differ depending on the state you live in. A neighbor cannot make you cut down your beautiful tree, but he could — in theory — take you to court and ask a judge to give him permission to cut down the tree if he can prove that it, or its roots, is interfering with or could reasonably cause damage to his property.
Brian M. Douglas, an attorney in Atlanta, Ga., writes: “First, the homeowner cannot trespass onto their neighbor’s property or cut anything beyond their property line. Second, the homeowner’s actions should not lead to permanent damage to the tree. If a homeowner trims branches, cuts tree roots, or treats part of the tree with a chemical and this damages or kills the tree, then the homeowner can be held liable.”
“‘If there are branches hanging over his property, he may have the right to trim them back, especially if they were interfering with his view or causing other obstructions.’”
Surprisingly, if a tree falls onto a neighbor’s property in Georgia, it’s the owner of the property where the tree fell and not the owner of the property with the tree who bears the financial responsibility in most cases, unless the tree was diseased or dead and clearly presented a risk of falling. In your case, it may be wise to consult an arborist to write a report on the tree and the risks to your neighbor’s property. That could cost about $250 to $400.
“If your neighbor’s tree falls onto your yard, the first step is to make sure the area is safe,” Douglas adds. “Trees can often pull power lines down with them, and trees are also conductors of electricity. So it’s important to make sure that there are no downed power lines or live wires. Your second step should be to take photos. A picture can show whether the tree had visible signs of disease or decay.”
The good news is that your neighbor has spoken to you. If there are branches hanging over his property, he may have the right to trim them back, especially if they are interfering with his view or causing other obstructions. Before he does that, however, he should speak to the local housing association to make sure he is not running afoul of any local ordinances.
So what should you say to him? “The tree is healthy and strong, has been here for 20 years and provides shade and privacy. What are your specific concerns? Perhaps an arborist can address them. I’m sorry you feel like the tree is interfering with your property, but cutting down such a beautiful tree is not an option.”
Be firm, cordial, stick to the facts, and neither you nor neighbor should cross any lines — in this case, property lines.
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