Fences: A Matter of Life and Death?

Fences. They seem so simple and benign. How can such a practical, seemingly neutral device lead to violence, threats, assault, and even death? Nothing seems to raise charged emotions quite like disputes around where property boundaries lie and what can be done at the edge. A number of recent cases show just how bad these situations can get, while a couple of simple legal rules and a best practice help straighten them out.

It’s hard not to rubberneck some of these woeful situations. A “threatening art installation” is put up by one neighbor after the other trims the crepe myrtle trees overhanging the fence. A gun is pulled on a neighbor after the property is surveyed for a fence erection. In another dispute over tree trimming at the property line, a neighbor suffered a stabbing. In an older case, a mother was shot by a neighbor after harvesting from an apple tree on a disputed property. Reading these articles can leave a person slack-jawed, but with the fervor around private property in the United States, perhaps it’s not so hard to see how emotionally charged these issues can become.

Although these news reports all include residential scenarios, most farmers and ranchers can tell stories of significant fence and boundary issues in their community. With all the emotion involved, a person might think fence law is complicated.

Fence law and property law are fairly straightforward. For example, if a tree’s trunk originates on one person’s property, it is considered that person’s tree, even if the branches and roots extend onto the neighbor’s property. Where a tree’s truck originates on the boundary line, the tree is common property, and neighbors share ownership. Granted, these rules depend on a clear understanding of the property line. For farmers with large acreage especially, it’s expensive to determine where a boundary line exists. Although much can be solved by paying for a survey, the cost barrier seems to lead people to spend their time arguing instead.

Attorneys practicing in this area say that about 80% of all real estate cases filed in the United States involve boundary disputes and encroachment onto a neighbor’s property. Legal action ends up being more expensive than a survey early on.

Regarding fence locations, common sense rules usually apply. If the fence is on a boundary line, responsibility for maintenance is shared, and neighbors are expected to work together. If the fence is on one person’s property, they are responsible- and zoning codes usually prescribe a necessary setback from the property line to make sure everyone can access and maintain their property. In the same way, it all goes back to a clear understanding of the boundary line- and the money that is necessary to pay for that survey.

When examining a property for lease or sale, examining the property boundary line and any fences, trees, or other uses on the edge of the property line can save a lot of headaches down the road.

For additional resources be sure to check out our collection: Fences, Boundaries and Neighbors