It’s very common for branches from a tree to overhang more than one property. Homeowners commonly ask about whose responsibility it is to maintain that tree? What is each property owner allowed or obligated to do? How does this vary for healthy versus unhealthy trees? A recent court case in Massachusetts (Shiel vs. Rowell) covered this precise issue and the ruling may help you better understand Massachusetts homeowner responsibilities for trees encroaching a neighbor’s property.

Overhanging Branches

When it comes to overhanging branches, the law is pretty straight forward. If your tree encroaches a neighbor’s property, you have no obligation to trim it back. Your neighbor, however, does have a right to do so (but only the parts that are actually encroaching). This applies to healthy trees.

Unhealthy Trees

The rule changes when it comes to unhealthy trees. Homeowners do have a responsibility to address unhealthy trees. They also carry liability for any damage that unhealthy trees may cause to a neighboring property.

For instance, imagine that you have a tree on your property that is clearly unhealthy. You procrastinate having it treated or taken down, perhaps because you’ve simply been too busy. That tree subsequent falls and hits your neighbor’s home, causing damage to the roof and second floor. That neighbor would have a valid reason to sue you for damages since you had knowledge of the tree being unhealthy and failed to do anything about it.

Damage Caused by Healthy Trees

In some cases, healthy trees can cause damage to another’s home. Who holds responsibility in this case? That is precisely what the court case, Shiel vs. Rowell was about. Rowell’s tree encroached onto Shiel’s property, causing algae buildup on the roof. Shiel filed suit asking that Rowell trim back the tree and pay for damages to the roof. However, since the tree was healthy, the court upheld precedent which prevented homeowners from being liable for damages caused by a healthy tree. It’s worth noting in this case that Shiel could have trimmed that encroaching tree back and prevented the roof damage.

Summary of Massachusetts Homeowner Responsibilities for Trees Encroaching a Neighbor’s Property

The recent ruling upholds current law and interpretation of that law. Homeowners need not trim back encroachments but neighbors have a right to do so. Homeowners do have an obligation to ensure unhealthy trees do not present a safety hazard or cause damage to another’s property, whether encroaching or not. It’s important to keep this in mind as a homeowner in Massachusetts.