Trees and Neighbors FAQ

Do I have to compensate my neighbors for damage to their septic tank caused by the spreading roots of a tree on my land?

Whether you are liable for damages to your neighbor's property caused by the spreading roots of a tree on your property depends on what state you live in. In most situations, a neighbor who is bothered or worried by encroaching branches or roots of a healthy tree won't be able to successfully sue the tree owner. Instead, the neighbor can go ahead and trim the tree himself. In some states, however, neighbors may sue under certain conditions, including:

  • If the tree encroaches onto the neighbor's property, the neighbor may sue to make the owner cut the branches, even if no damage has been done.
  • If the invading roots or branches cause serious harm to the neighbor's property or threaten to do so, the neighbor may sue. "Serious harm" generally means structural damage to property, for example damaged roofs or walls, crushed pipes, clogged sewers, or cracked foundations.
  • If a tree encroaches on neighboring property, the neighbor may sue if the tree was planted, not "wild."
  • A neighbor may sue only if the tree is "noxious," in other words if it both causes actual damage and is inherently dangerous or poisonous.

In many other states the law is unclear. In these states, a case might be successful if the tree:

  • does substantial damage to the neighbor's property, or
  • seriously interferes with the neighbor's ability to use and enjoy her property.

In addition to finding out what the laws are in your state, there are lots of other questions for you to answer in getting to the roots of this dilemma. What's the cost of the damage to the neighbors' septic system? Do you like these neighbors and want to keep a good relationship? How about splitting the cost? If you love your tree, how about your having the roots cut back professionally so that the neighbors don't damage the tree if they exercise their right to trim back the roots to your property line?

Sometimes, no matter what the law dictates, it's better to spend money to fix a situation instead of paying the same money to a lawyer and losing a neighbor.

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