By Robert Nislick
Massachusetts homeowners frequently have questions about the ownership of trees on their property and the right to cut overhanging branches from a neighbor’s tree.
Here are some of those questions, with answers, based on Massachusetts law.
Question: If a tree trunk is wholly on Alan’s property, who owns the tree?
Answer: Alan owns the tree. “Where the trunk of a tree stands wholly on the land of one proprietor, he has been deemed the owner of the entire tree”. Levine v. Black, 312 Mass. 242, 243 (1942).
Question: Alan and Bill are neighbors. The branches of Alan’s tree extend over the property line onto Bill’s side. Can Bill cut the branches of Alan’s tree?
Answer: Bill can cut the branches of Alan’s tree to the extent they are on Bill’s property. “[T]here is no doubt of the right of the adjoining proprietor to cut off limbs and roots which invade his premises.” Levine, 312 Mass. at 243. “Notwithstanding the legal ownership of the property, the overhanging branches of the plaintiff’s tree can be cut to the property line by the abutter.” Macero v. Busconi Corp., 12 Mass. L. Rptr. 521 (2000).
Question: Does Bill have to ask Alan’s permission before cutting the overhanging branches?
Answer: No. “His remedy is in his own hands.” Michalson v. Nutting, 275 Mass. 232, 234 (1931). “Should the roots or branches invade or overhang the land of another, that party has a definite right of self-help to trim the roots and branches to the extent they are on his property.” Bassin v. Fairley, Land Court Miscellaneous Case No. 11 MISC 451773 (AHS) (Sands, J.) (June 17, 2014). However, even though he doesn’t have to, Bill may want to consider discussing it with Alan beforehand so as to maintain neighborly relations between them.
Question: Carol and Debbie are neighbors. The trunk of a tree sits on both properties. Who owns the tree?
Answer: Both Carol and Debbie have legal interests in the tree. Where, “the trunk stands across the boundary line . . . [i]t has generally been said that under these circumstances both parties own the whole tree as tenants in common.” Levine, 312 Mass. at 243.
Question: What rights do Carol and Debbie have to trim overhanging branches?
Answer: They generally have the same rights that anyone has to trim overhanging branches. “[I]t is difficult to see why either owner should have any less right to cut off branches and roots than he would have if the trunk stood entirely upon the other’s land.” Levine, 312 Mass. at 244.
Question: A tree straddles the property line of Edward and Frank. Edward wants to remove it completely. Can he?
Answer: Most likely not. “Each of the parties held a legal interest in that part of the tree on his own property but also had the right to prevent the other party from dealing with part of the tree so as to injure or destroy the whole tree.” Lasell College v. Fox, 53 Mass. App. Ct. 1103 (2001). The only way in which Edward may be able to remove such a tree in its entirety is if the tree constituted a nuisance. See Bassin v. Fairley, Land Court Miscellaneous Case No. 11 MISC 451773 (AHS) (Sands, J.) (June 17, 2014).
Question: George and Harold are neighbors. A large healthy willow tree on George’s property overhangs Harold’s driveway. Leaves, sap, and branches fall onto Harold’s driveway. Harold slips and falls on the sap and leaves that fell on his driveway from George’s tree. Is George liable for Harold’s injuries?
Answer: No. The willow will not weep for Harold. She should have cut the overhanging branches her property so as to prevent herself from getting injured by George’s tree. George is not liable. “The failure of a landowner to prevent the blowing or dropping of leaves, branches, and sap from a healthy tree onto a neighbor’s property is not unreasonable and cannot be the basis of a finding of negligence or private nuisance. Of course, a neighbor has the right to remove so much of the tree as overhangs his property. . . . To impose liability for injuries sustained as a result of debris from a healthy tree on property adjoining the site of the accident would be to ignore reality, and would be unworkable.” Ponte v. DaSilva, 388 Mass. 1008 (1983).
Question: Irene and Janet are neighbors. A large poplar tree on Janet’s property is growing so much that its roots are extending onto Irene’s property. The roots of Janet’s tree have caused the cement under Irene’s house to crack and crumble, potentially injuring the foundation of Irene’s house. If Irene sues Janet, would the court order Janet to prevent the harm to Irene and compensate Irene for her damages?
Answer: Probably not. The court would probably deny relief to Irene and rule that she could have and should have exercised her right of self-help to trim the roots that invaded her property before causing damage to it. See Michalson, 275 Mass. at 234.
Question: Keith wants to grow trees on his entire lot. The shade of the trees is bothering is next door neighbor Larry. What can Larry do about it?
Answer: Not much. The owner of a lot may plant shade trees upon it, or cover it with a thick forest, and the injury done to the neighbor is no violation of his rights. See Michalson, 275 Mass. at 233.
Question: One day, Larry decides to cut down Keith’s trees, without Keith’s permission. What are Keith’s remedies against Larry?
Answer: Larry is liable for the tort of trespass to trees. The Massachusetts trespass to trees statute, G. L. c. 242, § 7, provides landowners with a remedy against someone who willfully cuts down someone else’s trees. The wrongdoer shall be liable to the owner for three times the amount of damages, unless he had good reason to believe the land was his own, or he was lawfully authorized to cut the trees. For a detailed analysis, see my companion article Trespass to Trees in Massachusetts.
About the author: Robert Nislick is a Massachusetts real estate lawyer. He can be reached at (508) 405-1238, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.