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A Minnesota statute defines a nuisance as follows: “Anything which is... an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, is a nuisance.” In the context of neighbors and their trees, the branches from your neighbor’s tree that rub against your roof or the roots that push up your sidewalk are considered a nuisance. What about your neighbor’s tree that leans far into your yard and prevents your use of a corner of your yard? If that tree interferes with the free use and enjoyment of your own property, then the tree has become a nuisance.
Courts sometimes use a more complex definition, but for most purposes, a boundary tree is one that is either planted on the boundary line between two lots or a tree whose branches, trunk, or roots have crossed a boundary.
Generally, the location of the trunk determines who owns the tree. A tree trunk that stands solely in your yard is your tree. As the tree owner, you can decide to coddle your tree or cut it down.
Tip: If you and your neighbor are co-owners of a true boundary-line tree, then you cannot cut down the tree without your neighbor’s consent, and vice-versa. You and your neighbor share the tree-care expenses and responsibilities equally.
A survey is the best way to determine the boundary lines of a lot. Look for surveyor stakes or boundary markers. A plat map and legal descriptions help, too. Often neighbors know where the boundary is between their lots.
See our When Roots or Branches Encroach in Your Yard page.
Property owners in every state have the right to trim the branches or roots of a neighbor’s tree that encroach onto their property, up to the property line, at their own expense. This right is called “self-help.” Self-help is an alterative to going to court. The rationale is that self-help prevents the wasteful use of the court system to resolve comparatively minor disputes. It’s a trade-off: you have the right to cut and remove the encroaching branches or roots of your neighbor’s tree, right away, at your own expense (i.e., use self-help), instead of having to hire a lawyer, start a lawsuit, and wait for the courts to sort it out. Using self-help saves you time and money, and keeps the courts from settling disputes between neighbors. In Minnesota, you have the option of using self-help or going to court, when using self-help is not practical or reasonable. In most other states, self-help is the exclusive remedy.
Cutting down a tree on another person’s property without permission is trespass and carried a stiff penalty. In Minnesota, whoever intentionally cuts down a tree without the owner’s permission can be assessed three times (“treble”) the amount of monetary loss suffered by the tree owner.
Tip: Don’t engage in stealth tree-cutting when your neighbor has gone on vacation. You’re setting yourself up to pay three times your neighbor’s loss.
Leaves, twigs, sap, acorns, etc., are naturally occurring tree debris and do not generally constitute a nuisance. There are no court cases in Minnesota that directly deal with this issue. However, courts in other states have recognized that tree owners are liable for “sensible damage” caused by their trees, such as a damaged roof, but not mere debris from a healthy tree. Going to court to have a neighbor ordered to pick up fallen debris is not practical or economical.
The rule of thumb is that the fruit on the overhanging branches belongs to the tree owner. Picking the fruit may not be so simple. Ownership of the fruit does not give your neighbor any right to trespass onto your property to pick the fruit. The law in Minnesota on this subject is not clear cut. Courts would probably weigh your right to keep trespassers out of your yard against the owner’s right to harvest the fruit. The balance may tip in favor of your neighbor, if she owns an orchard and depends on the fruit for her livelihood. The law is also unclear on the issue of fallen fruit. Once it has fallen, the fruit’s value diminishes. It has become, for all practical purposes, “tree debris.” You should be able to use or dispose of the fruit, if your neighbor says nothing about wanting it.
There is no recourse. If the tree trunk was in your neighbor’s yard, it’s their tree and they had the right to cut it down.
The best approach is to try to work out the dispute with your neighbor.
Look in the Yellow Pages under “Attorneys/Real Estate or Real Property Law.” Also, look in the Gray Pages of the phone directory for Lawyer Referral and Information Service. This service’s attorneys often provide a half-hour free consultation to people referred to them.