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Autumn means it’s time for those trees to start letting their leaves, acorns, pinecones and other accessories drop. After all, there is a reason it’s called ‘fall.’

Leaves clogging gutters is one thing, and there’s no question that if the leaves are falling on your side, it's your responsibility to rake them.

But it’s a different story when limbs and trees fall over on your side. The lines are a little greyer and a lot of us aren’t always sure who’s liable when things like that happen--especially when it results in damage.

Tree with red leaves fallen in backyard of powder blue house. The tree appears to have just missed the house.

Maybe you have 30 acres of land and you don’t have to worry about questions like this, but for everyone running the rat race in suburbia, these are real sources of contention. Even if you have 30 acres of land, it’s probably still a source of contention. If my neighbor’s tree drops a limb on my house, who’s at fault? How do I know when a limb is dead and needs to be lopped off? How do I figure out where my property line is? 

These problems aren’t isolated to one area. If it’s not the graceful natural death of one season giving birth to a new season making limbs fall, then it’s a hurricane in the south throwing tree limbs this way and that, or cyclones in the Midwest, or earthquakes on the West Coast. Most of us must deal with trees on our property, trees die, and when those trees fall, it can create a lot of damage.
So, who’s responsible?

Unfortunately, this is one of those few situations in life where you can't put your finger on your nose and say “Not it." But that’s why we’re here. Because home coverage doesn’t end at your front door, at least not if you have coverage B.

Limbs

Resplendent autumn leaves on a branch with hues of orange, yellow, and red, and a blue sky peaking between the leaves.

Now if leaves wreak as much havoc as they do clogging our gutters and piling on our roofs, you can imagine the issues branches create. Fortunately, they aren’t issues too monumental for you to handle.

When it comes to who is responsible for limb damage, there are two things to consider: who owns the tree and what caused the limb to fall.

In most jurisdictions, trunk location determines who owns the tree.

If the trunk is fully on your property, you own the tree.

If the trunk is fully on your neighbor’s property, then he owns the tree.

If the trunk straddles the property line, even if one-third of it is on your side and two-thirds of it is on your neighbor’s side, then you both are equally responsible for the tree. That means you must maintain the parts of the tree that overhang your side.

•If you are unsure about who is liable for a tree, consider bringing it up with your local Brightway agent.

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A tree on one side of a white picket fence and a tree on the other side. The leaves are autumn shades of orange and red with green grass below.

If you own the tree and a dead limb on your side falls on your house as a result of neglect, then you are liable and your insurance may not cover it. If you or your neighbor own the tree and the limb falls as an act of God, then neither of you is liable and your insurance should cover it, but only if the tree falling caused damage to the property. If the tree is entirely on your neighbor’s side and a branch falls on your house because of his neglect, then he is liable and his insurance would cover the damage. And if you file a lawsuit over your neighbor’s negligence, it’ll be up to his insurance company to handle it.

If you do need to make a claim about a fallen tree or limb, find your insurance company here.

It’s always sound advice to keep your trees trimmed, especially in areas prone to high winds or rain. Over time, limbs can rot and become waterlogged, making them dangerous to your car, your house and you.

If the trunk is on your neighbor’s property but a dead limb is overhanging your property, it’s a good idea to go knock on your neighbor’s door and let them know, and to give them the reason you’d like them to trim the limb. If it’s to protect your roof and prevent them from being liable for damage should it fall, they’ll probably understand. If you want it trimmed badly enough, it might even be worth offering to split the cost as a good gesture. After all, you're benefiting from the limb being gone too.

The whole dang tree

Now this is where it’s not fun for anyone. Because a fallen limb on a neighbor’s house is one thing, a fallen tree is another. This exact scenario played out for one of our employees here at Brightway.

“Our neighbors behind us had a huge oak tree that unbeknownst to us, was dead, soaking up water and getting heavy. During a storm, it fell and crushed our back fence, fortunately just missing our house. When it came to footing the bill for the mess, guess who was responsible? Us! And guess who didn’t offer to help pay for the new fence? The neighbors whose tree fell on it!”

If you want to avoid an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ sort of relationships with your neighbors, consider offering to split the cost even if the liability is completely on them. Why? Because it’s the neighborly thing to do, and it cuts down on some of the drama. Remember that the fence is for both of you.

How do I figure out my property line?

A couple sitting on the floor in front of the couch, the man holds a laptop, the woman holds a set of blueprints for the house. The man has his arm around the woman's waist as they both look at the blueprints inquisitively.

Before you make any changes to your property, including planting trees that might overlap your neighbors yard, get an idea of your property lines so that you don’t plant where it’s going to create problems.

One thing you can do is look at your property deed or survey map. This would have been part of the process of purchasing your home. Try contacting your realtor if you still have their details.

If that proves unsuccessful, your local county recorder’s office should have maps of your neighborhood available. You’ll want to specifically ask for maps with dimensions.

How can I tell if a limb or tree is dead?

1. Look for bare patches without leaves.

Do leaves appear on the branch or tree in the spring and summer months? If not, then that could be a sign that a section of the tree (or the entire tree) is dead. If it’s localized to one area, trimming back the dead limbs may help the tree to recover and prevent it from completely dying. If the tree doesn't change at all throughout seasons, it's dead and you should probably remove it.

2. Scratch the surface of a branch to reveal a brown or hollow inside.

Knobby snapped twig revealing splintery wooden inside.

Scratching the surface of a healthy twig or limb will reveal dull green showing that the plant is alive and thriving. If a branch snaps off easily, it’s deadwood. Healthy twigs and limbs are bendable and difficult to snap.

You've probably tried to snap a healthy branch off a tree before and tirelessly spun it in circles to try to detach it. This is how healthy branches work. They are are resilient to stress. But if a twig or branch snaps easily without much bending, it could be a sign that the branch or tree is dead.

3. Is the bark falling off without new bark taking its place?

A dead tree among lush green trees with chips of bark missing revealing smooth wood beneath.

A healthy tree will continue to replace fallen bark with a new layer of bark, apart from a few species like sycamore which may carry bare patched of bark seasonally. But if the tree is simply being stripped away and revealing smooth wood beneath, this can be a symptom of a tree that’s on its way out.

As you can see in the example above, the tree is showing other signs of death too. It is bare of leaves, and its branches have snapped off. It's important when looking at a tree to consider all the symptoms together when determining whether it's healthy or dead.

4. Do you spot mushrooms on the roots?

If fungus is growing along the roots and base of a tree, it could be a sign of the tree decaying. It’s a good idea to consult an arborist or tree cutter.

Not only can a dead tree be a hazard for home damage, but it can also attract insects that can find their way into your property.

Even when you figure out your property lines, remember that respecting your neighbor goes beyond adhering to property lines. You respect your neighbor by having their back, by taking responsibility for your trees and property, and yeah, if a tree falls on their fence, maybe consider pitching in if it borders your property. Nothing covers like insurance, but we can do our part to help cover the people around us.

 

Connect with your local Brightway agent for more expert counsel