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Who pays for fallen trees?

Your next door neighbor has a old maple tree in the back yard near the property line and it has large branches that extend over the roof of your sunroom. The branches grow from a section of the trunk that appears to be rotting, and it’s infested with ants. Small branches and leaves fall onto your roof from time to time chipping away at your shingles and cluttering up the gutters. You’re afraid that the tree will come crashing down on the sunroom where your grandchildren spend most of their time – What do you do?

You need to investigate. As trees begin to loose their cover in the fall it becomes easier to spot potential tree-related problems and hazards on your property and on your neighbor’s property that would have otherwise been hidden by leaves. Frequent inspections are necessary since insects, diseases, weather, pollution, landscape equipment and construction performed near the tree all effect the health and condition of the tree. If you see something concerning a neighboring tree, create an opportunity to discuss the issue with the tree owner.

It’s a good practice to look for the obvious issues like dead branches. Some other signs include:

If the problem is with one of your trees, have a professional come out and advise you of your options. This proactive approach should help if any liability issues arise from future tree-related damages. Homeowners can spot these trouble signs, but qualified professionals best handle tree maintenance.

Most tree-related claims are not the fault of you or your neighbor or the tree; rather, they’re natural occurrences, and you may end up paying the bulk of any damage. When beautiful landscaping becomes a liability it’s important to know beforehand what the issues are. It’s important to know who’s responsible when damage occurs, and you should also know what to expect from your or your neighbor’s insurance company. Also, it’s important to remember that your trees are alive, and they must be fed and maintained properly in order to remain healthy, reducing the possibility of property damage.

Does your policy cover damage from neighbor’s trees?

You need to review your policy to make sure that damage from neighboring trees is covered and that it includes the following:

Rules regarding healthy trees and natural causes

For healthy trees damaged by a storm the general rule is the homeowner whose house has been damaged by a tree is the one who files a claim. When a tree from your neighbor’s property falls on your property, your homeowner’s insurance usually pays for any damage. Your policy many also provide coverage for having a qualified Arborist come out and remove a fallen tree.

If a storm caused the limb to break, It’s not your neighbor’s fault. In most cases you will need to file the claim, and pay the deductible without involving the tree owner. You have no legal recourse and could be out of a lot of money if you have a high deductible. Insurance companies call storms an "act of god" which means that it’s a natural cause.

Rules regarding diseased and damaged trees

When trees are damaged or diseased, determining liability may not so cut-and-dry. You can try and hold the tree owner responsible for damages. You won’t be responsible for the deductible if you succeed. In order to be successful you have to show that the tree owner had notice or knew about the likelihood of the potential hazard. If you have already talked to your neighbors, and they don’t make any effort to maintain the tree, we suggest having a qualified expert inspect the tree. If it’s determined that there is a problem, then have the expert send a letter to the tree owner with return receipt requested. This may give you the proof you need to show neglect if the tree damages your property.

For example, let’s say a storm comes through and a limb from your neighbor’s decaying tree crashes through your house destroying the piano in your living room. If you can prove the tree owner knew about the condition of the tree before the storm, and the tree owner neglected to maintain the tree, you could say that your neighbor knew about the likelihood of the accident but did nothing to prevent it. In this case, the accident is a result of your neighbor’s neglect. You do have legal recourse in this case.

What if the tree really poses a threat and your neighbor doesn’t act?

If you have already talked to your neighbors, and you’ve sent them a letter, and they still neglect to maintain a tree, you can call your city government. They might step in and take care of the tree, or require the tree owner to take care of the tree citing a violation of some local ordnance. Or, a utility company might be able to help you. Utilities often maintain trees that are near its facilities in order to gain access or if the tree threatens utility equipment.

Another alternative is to sue. "The legal theory is that the dangerous tree is a nuisance because it is unreasonable for the owner to keep it and it interferes with your use and enjoyment of your property. You’ll have to sue in regular court (not small claims court) and have proof that the tree really does pose a danger to you" (NOTO, 2002).

What about earthquakes and floods?

The reason a tree fell could be a factor on whether or not your homeowner’s policy will cover damages. Generally if the tree fell during a storm you’re covered. But, trees that fall because of earthquakes and floods may not be covered under standard homeowner’s policies.

Is tree removal covered?

Most homeowner’s policies cover the removal of fallen trees or limbs only if there is property damage. Most policies pay up to $500. If there is no property damage involved, most polices will not pay to have a tree or limb removed. For example, if a storm knocked your neighbor’s giant willow tree onto your driveway, and there was no property damage, the removal of that willow tree it typically not covered by your insurance or your neighbor’s insurance.

Tree planting and maintenance

Visiting a nursery can be a little daunting as you try to decide which tree belongs in that special place on the side of your house. Like with any major home renovation plan that you make, you need to consider if you are making the right choice when buying a tree. Homeowners need to plant the right trees, and keep them maintained in order to keep them healthy and avoid costly property damage.

Tree planting tips

You should always consult your nursery or Arborist before purchasing or planting any tree to determine which trees are best suited for your yard and geographic area. Some of the more common planting tips include:

Tree maintenance tips

The National Arbor Day Foundation suggests that all homeowners make an effort to understand pruning techniques, and if they elect to prune their own trees, only prune limbs that they can reach while standing on the ground.

And, when you need to hire an Arborist, a be sure to:

For more information contact your local University Extension office and ask to speak to their Master gardener.

In closing

Healthy trees add to the value of your property. Trees cast beauty and at the same time filter the air that you breathe. Each acre of trees is capable of removing a ton or particulate pollution from the air. Trees are necessary and the responsibility of every property owner. Maintain them properly and review your homeowner policy.