Iowa Fence Law FAQ

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Jennifer Harrington
Staff Attorney, Center for Agriculture Law and Taxation
Iowa State University

 

We often receive email and call-in questions at the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation (CALT) about Iowa fence law. This article answers some of the most frequent questions that come into our office about fences. A more in-depth primer from CALT about Iowa’s fence laws can be found here.

What is a partition fence?

A partition fence is a fence located on the boundary line of adjacent parcels that have different owners. However, the fence laws can still apply even if the fence is not directly on the boundary line.  

Do Iowa partition fence laws apply to me?

Yes, the laws apply to every landowner in Iowa (except railroads). The Iowa Supreme Court has noted that, “Iowa fencing statutes date from our earliest times, even predating the Iowa Code of 1851.” Currently, the Iowa fence laws are found in Iowa Code Chapter 359A.

Do I have to erect a partition fence?

It depends. A landowner is not required to build or contribute to a partition fence until they receive a request from their neighbor. Once one landowner decides that they want a partition fence, they begin the process outlined in Chapter 359A. A landowner becomes obligated to build or contribute to a partition fence through that process.

What is the process found in Chapter 359A?

The process begins with a written request. One neighbor will usually send a letter to the other requesting a partition fence. Usually, the landowners will meet and agree upon the best way to erect it. If they cannot agree on how to divide the responsibility, then fence viewers will resolve the dispute. Fence viewers are usually township trustees, and they have full authority to resolve the disputes about partition fences. The fence viewers will determine the responsibilities of each landowner. What they decide is written in an order and placed on the land record. The order is then binding on the current and future owners.  

What if there is disagreement about where the boundary is located?

Fence viewers cannot resolve boundary disagreements. Other legal mechanisms, such as a quiet title action, resolve a boundary disagreement.

Who owns the fence?

Both landowners own the partition fence, and they each have the right to maintain the fence as if it were wholly on their property.

My former neighbor and I had a handshake agreement about the fence, but they just sold their property to a new person. Is the new neighbor obligated to keep the same arrangement?

No. The new neighbor will not have to abide by the handshake agreement. If, however, the agreement was written and recorded on the land record, then the new owner would have to abide by the previous agreement.

How do I make my neighbor repair their portion of the fence?

The answer to this question depends on whether there is recorded fence agreement or fence viewers’ order. If there is, then one owner can sue the other owner in district court for breach of the agreement or failure to comply with the fence viewers’ order. If there is no order or recorded agreement, then the Chapter 359A process outlined above must be followed.

Can trees be a partition fence?

Yes. Trees or hedges can be a partition fence. If the fence is a hedge, then it must be trimmed in June and September to be within 5 feet of the ground unless the owners agree otherwise. A hedge is a row of plants that create a defined line. Often hedges are made out of dense shrubs or bushes.

I don’t own livestock, but my neighbor does. Are they responsible for the whole fence line?

No. Upon the written request of one landowner, Iowa Code §359A.1A  requires both neighbors to contribute to the cost of a partition fence, regardless of livestock ownership. The Iowa Supreme Court has definitively stated that, “Iowa Code chapter 359A applies equally to all adjoining landowners, without regard to the use of the land.”

What is the “Right Hand Rule”?

The “right hand rule” is a common way to divide responsibility of the fence. However, it is not a legal requirement. The right hand rule has the landowners meeting at the midpoint of the property line, stand on their property and look at each other. Each landowner is responsible for maintaining the fence to their right side from that middle point to the end of the property line.

What if property borders a road?

Fence law does not apply to fences located in the road right-of-way. A landowner can be told to remove a fence located within a right-of-way. For more information about fences and roads, please review this article.

Upcoming Webinar

If you (or someone you know) is interested in learning more about Iowa fence laws, CALT is hosting a free webinar about Iowa Fence Law on July 11. The webinar will go into more detail about the fence viewer process and how to address boundary disputes. Registration and more information can be found here.

Date of Publication: 
May, 2024