Who Is Responsible For That Tree?

Palos Verdes Trees

Owners of Palos Verdes real estate often ask me what to do about neighbor’s trees.  Can they cut their neighbor’s tree if it is hanging in their yard?  What responsibility do they have for their own trees?  Holly M. Thomas, General Counsel for Remax Palos Verdes and Execs Realty, wrote an excellent article which answers those questions and I have included it with her permission below:

“Trees are a wonderful part of our everyday scenery and can provide shade and beauty to a property. However, if the tree is in the wrong location, it can be disturbing or even disastrous to the property and/or to the neighbor. In general, you are the master of your domain; therefore, you can plant what you want, where you want or you can trim what you want, how you want. However, there are other duties that counter those general rights which have to do with the effect that your actions have on your neighbors. Here are a few tips as a property owner and the neighbor of a property with a tree or other large landscape.

Property Owners: 1. Who owns the tree is determined by the tree’s trunk. If the trunk is entirely on one lot, that owner owns it. If it spreads across two lots, both owners own it, jointly. Civil Code Sections 833 and 834. 2. As a tree owner, you have a duty to maintain your landscaping so that it is not dangerous for others nor creating a dangerous condition.  3. You can be liable for damage to a neighbor’s property if your tree is negligently cared for such that it becomes a danger to those around you.

Neighbors 1. You may trim anything that crosses your property line; however, the 1994 court in Booska v. Patel said you cannot do so negligently. That is, you cannot affect the integrity or otherwise interfere with the health of the tree. In fact, there is an earlier case that states that you cannot actually trim anything until there is actual damage, not merely nuisance; although that case is generally deemed inapplicable since a neighbor should not have to suffer actual damage before being allowed to remove a tree limb or trim back overhanging shrubs.  2. You may not cross over the property line in order to cut any portion of a neighbor’s tree. You can be fined if you unlawfully cut a neighbor’s tree or damage it (e.g. causing disease or instability) or have to replace the tree with an identical or substantially similar tree (i.e. a mature tree). Triple damages can be fined if it was intentional and only double damages if it is accidental. Civil Code Section 3346.

How do you handle uncooperative neighbors who will not keep the trees and landscaping trimmed?

If a neighbor is not being cooperative in trimming landscaping that is coming across the property line, you (or your attorney) can send a certified mail letter to the neighbor putting them on notice that a dangerous condition exists regarding the landscaping and that if the landscaping causes any injury (personal or property), the neighbor will be liable for all damages. Include in the letter an additional request that the landscaping be trimmed so that it no longer encroaches over the property line.


Before cutting or trimming someone else’s tree or landscaping, be sure to weigh the nuisance effect to you versus the damage you will cause to the tree. The court will apply a reasonableness standard to your actions in determining liability. Therefore, you should prune and shape carefully!

The information in this article is believed accurate as of the date of publishing. This information is not intended to be legal advice for a specific situation but rather to provide answers to general questions. Advice in specific situations may differ depending upon a wide variety of factors; therefore, individuals with specific issues should seek the advice of an attorney, financial advisor or other professional.”

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