Who is responsible, when your tree, or a branch from your tree, falls on your neighbor's garage or fence or shed and causes serious damage? Trees that might have started out small and manageable have a natural tendency to grow and mature so that, in time, branches overhang a property line. If the tree, or some of its branches, falls, the result could be severe damage to a house, a car, a boat, or other valuable property. When that happens, who's liable to cover the resulting costs?
Before you can determine who is liable for damage caused by a falling tree or branch, you need to know who actually owns the tree.
If the trunk of the tree is on your property, you own it. If the trunk of the tree on your neighbors' property, they own it, no matter how much of the canopy overhangs the property line.
If the trunk of the tree is directly on the property line (a "boundary tree"), both you and your neighbors jointly own the tree. (See articles on "Neighbors and Trees" for more on this.)
In most American states, if your tree or any part of it falls on your neighbors' property and causes damage to their property through no fault of your own (due to a snow storm, winds, hurricane, or other so-called "act of God"), you are not responsible. Your neighbors will have to file a claim with their own property insurer if they want to be reimbursed for their loss.
This will likely come as a surprise to your neighbors! But the key distinction to remember is that you weren't actually at fault.
If, however, the tree that you own, or a branch from it, fell as a result of your negligence (for example, an overhanging branch had been dead for years and your neighbors had been complaining about it for nearly as long but you neglected to have it cut down), you are legally liable.
If you are liable for the damage caused by your tree falling on your neighbors' property and your neighbors intend to bring an action against you in small claims or county court seeking reimbursement, you will need to pay. However, it might not have to come from your own pocket. The first thing you will want to know is whether your homeowners' insurance policy covers any amount that your neighbors are awarded.
Some policies will acknowledge coverage for claims only if no negligence was involved; others will cover claims regardless of whether the policyholder has been negligent. Some policies cover only certain kinds of damage (damage to physical structures, for example, but not to the land around it).
Read your policy carefully, then check with your agent. Also, if you want to avoid likely increases in your homeowners' insurance policy premiums, consider simply bearing the cost, or a part of it, if the damage is minimal; for example, to a small section of a plastic fence easily repaired with replacement parts from a "big box" store.
Disputes between neighbors about falling trees or branches are common and unhappily, just as often unnecessary. Check the applicable law in your municipality first, then share your findings with your neighbors. A cooperative approach to the question of damages could save everyone unnecessary time and expense.