Let’s face it – one of the first lessons you likely learned as a homeowner was that you can’t pick your neighbors, no matter how much you might like to at times. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones if you in fact have neighbors that you like, get along with and can openly speak with (I’m fortunate enough to count myself in this latter category). Regardless of whether you’ve got neighbors that drive you bonkers or ones that you get along with famously, another sad lesson in life is that it often doesn’t take much to sour even the best of relationships. While I wouldn’t deign to write about how to keep a harmonious neighborhood, I will offer some general advice on a topic that has unnecessarily spoiled many a friendly relationship.

It’s silly. It’s small. It’s seemingly innocuous and likely petty. It’s all of these things and more, at least until you’re the one faced with it. What dastardly thing could divide once loving neighbors like the Hatfields and McCoys?? The answer? Shrubbery! Well, any foliage really, but hopefully you get the point. I know, I know. That’s plain silly, right? To an extent I agree with that assessment, at least until you recognize that a family’s house is its castle. That said, most liege lords don’t like things that threaten their property rights, even if those threats are minor.

With all flourish aside, let’s settle into the questions de jour. What are your rights when faced with a neighbor’s tree or hedgerow infringing onto your property? What rights do you have to trim or remove a tree or hedge which belongs to your neighbor but which resides partly on your property? Does it make a difference whether an overhanging tree poses a threat to person or property?

Barring local ordinances to the contrary (yes, they exist, so be sure to check your local rules!!), New York law does allow neighbors to tend to trees and hedges that infringe on their property. This is a limited right though, and one that must be exercised carefully. Homeowners have a right to trim infringing branches only up to their property line, but they must take care not to damage or kill the remaining tree, hedge or bush. If you do harm your neighbor’s foliage, be heedful of that fact you could well find yourself liable to your neighbor for any damages that she suffers from your actions. The aesthetics of a poor pruning job aside, so long as you don’t kill your neighbor’s tree and you only trim up to the property line, you’re well within your rights to cut it back.

Let’s assume your neighbor has exercised her rights to trim your tree up to your property line. What should you do if your neighbor demands reimbursement for the costs she incurred to trim back the branches? Unless the tree is posing a hazard to your neighbor’s person or property (yes, that standard is somewhat open to interpretation), the law does not require you to personally trim the branches or reimburse your neighbor for any expenses she might have incurred from electing to trim back the tree herself.

Propriety aside, even if you are legally entitled to trim back that overhanding branch or creeping hedge row, before you do so, you may want to ask yourself how you would feel if roles were reversed and your neighbor started hacking away at your property without so much as consulting you. While’s there’s certainly no guarantee as to how your neighbor will react, an explanation of what you plan on doing beforehand, with particular emphasis on the fact that you will only be trimming up to the property line, will probably be better received than simply starting up the chainsaw without any notice to her.

Keep in mind that although you may not need to secure your neighbor’s permission to do the work, you’ll still likely be well-served by communicating with her first, if for no other reason than to try and maintain cordial relations with your neighbor. And you never know what might come of that conversation – not only might your neighbor have some useful suggestions for the trim job, but she might even offer to help with the work!