Submitted: January 10, 2019
Circuit Court-Keene Family Division
Offices of Kelly E. Dowd, PLLC, of Keene (Kelly E. Dowd on
the brief), for the petitioners.
J. MacDonald, attorney general (Laura E. B. Lombardi, senior
assistant attorney general, on the memorandum of law), as
petitioners, M.F. and C.N., are unmarried, cohabitating
adults who jointly petitioned to adopt M.F.'s minor
biological son, J.W. The Circuit Court (Moran, J.)
ruled that RSA 170-B:4 (2014) does not authorize such an
adoption and dismissed the petition. See RSA 170-B:4
(governing who may adopt). On appeal, the petitioners argue
that the trial court erred because they are eligible to
jointly adopt J.W. pursuant to RSA 170-B:4, II and III. We
relevant facts follow. M.F. is the biological father of J.W.,
who was born in 2007. M.F. has been in a relationship with
C.N. since approximately 2008. They live together and share
two biological children but have never married. J.W. has
lived with them since approximately 2011, when M.F. was
awarded primary residential responsibility of J.W. The
parental rights of J.W.'s birth mother were terminated in
and C.N. thereafter filed a joint petition to adopt J.W. They
argued that their joint petition is authorized under RSA
170-B:4 because M.F. is "[t]he unmarried parent of the
adoptee," RSA 170-B:4, III, and C.N. is "[a]n
unmarried adult," RSA 170-B:4, II. The trial court
disagreed, relying in part on our decision in In re Jason
C., 129 N.H. 762 (1987). See Jason C., 129 N.H.
at 765 (holding that a joint adoption application from two
unmarried adults was not authorized under RSA 170-B:4, II
(1977)). Consequently, the court dismissed the petition and
denied the petitioners' subsequent motion for
reconsideration. This appeal followed.
was unknown to the common law and is wholly statutory;
therefore, our review of the law is limited to interpreting
the applicable statutes enacted by the legislature. In re
Estate of McQuesten, 133 N.H. 420, 422 (1990); In re
Sky D., 138 N.H. 543, 545 (1994). Statutory
interpretation is a question of law, which we review de
novo. Petition of Carrier, 165 N.H. 719, 721
(2013). In matters of statutory interpretation, we are the
final arbiter of the intent of the legislature as expressed
in the words of the statute considered as a whole. In re
Baby Girl P., 147 N.H. 772, 775 (2002). We focus on the
words of the statute because they are the touchstone of the
legislature's intent. Doggett v. Town of North
Hampton, 138 N.H. 744, 745 (1994). We give effect to
every word of a statute whenever possible, Marcotte v.
Timberlane/Hampstead School Dist., 143 N.H. 331, 339
(1999), and we presume that the legislature did not enact
superfluous or redundant words, Winnacunnet Coop. Sch.
Dist. v. Town of Seabrook, 148 N.H. 519, 525-26 (2002).
We interpret legislative intent from the statute as written
and will not consider what the legislature might have said or
add language that the legislature did not see fit to
include. Carrier, 165 N.H. at 721.
first to the language of the relevant statute. RSA 170-B:4
lists categories of individuals who are eligible to adopt.
Jason C., 129 N.H. at 764; see RSA 170-B:4.
The statute provides:
Any of the following adults may adopt:
I. Husband and wife together.
II. An unmarried adult.
III. The unmarried parent of the adoptee.
IV. A married person without that person's spouse joining
as a petitioner, if the adoptee is not the petitioner's
spouse; and if any one of the following circumstances apply:
(a) The petitioner's spouse is a parent of the adoptee
and assents to the adoption;
(b)The petitioner and his or her spouse are legally
(c) The failure of the petitioner's spouse to join in the
petition is excused by the court by reason of prolonged
unexplained absence, unavailability, or circumstances
constituting an unreasonable withholding of assent; or
(d) The petitioner's spouse assents to the adoption and
the adoptee is over the age of 18.
RSA 170-B:4. The petitioners' contention that they are
eligible to jointly adopt J.W. is premised on their argument
that the statute authorizes the joint adoption of a minor
child by an unmarried parent of the child and an unrelated,
unmarried adult. See RSA 170-B:4, II, III.
overview of the statute gives context to our determinations
below. RSA chapter 170-B, including RSA 170-B:4, was first
enacted in 1973, see Laws 1973, 266:1, as part of
legislation proposed by the Governor's Commission on Laws
Affecting Children. See In re Adoption of Baby C.,
125 N.H. 216, 221 (1984); James J. Bianco, Jr., Michael R.
Chamberlain & Charles A. DeGrandpre, The New
Hampshire Adoption Statute: An Overview, 18 N.H.B.J.
199, 199-201 (1977). Although RSA 170-B:4 has been amended
several times since 1973, the language of paragraphs I and II
has not changed, the language of paragraph III has not
materially changed, and the statute's overall structure
has remained the same. See Laws 1973, 266:1; Laws
1987, 343:3; Laws 1996, 46:2; Laws 1999, 18:2, 76:1; Laws
2004, 255:1. Therefore, our decision in Jason C. is
instructive in construing the current version of RSA 170-B:4.
See Jason C., 129 N.H. at 763-65; cf.
Anderson v. Estate of Wood, 171 N.H. 524, 529 (2018)
(describing presumptions we apply when the legislature amends
a statute after we have construed it).
Jason C., which required us to interpret paragraph
II of RSA 170-B:4, "we look[ed] carefully at the
categories of eligible petitioners to adopt" listed in
the statute. Jason C., 129 N.H. at 764. We observed
that these categories "include two classes of
individuals described as unmarried and applying
alone: an 'unmarried adult,' RSA 170-B:4, II
[(1977)]; and the 'unmarried father or mother of the
individual to be adopted.' RSA 170-B:4, III
[(1977)]."Id. (emphasis added). The other
paragraphs of the statute make clear that "[m]arried
applicants must apply jointly with their spouses, . . .
except under narrowly limited circumstances" that are
listed in the last paragraph of the statute. Id.;
see RSA 170-B:4, IV. We concluded that, in using the
language "[a]n unmarried adult," the legislature
did not intend to authorize two unmarried adults to adopt
jointly under paragraph II. Jason C., 129 N.H. at
763-64 (quotation omitted). We held that "[r]espect for
such [legislative] intent precludes our reading RSA 170-B:4,
II so as to authorize a joint adoption application from two
unmarried adults." Id. at 765; cf.
Anderson v. Executive Dir., N.H. Retirement Sys.,
166 N.H. 752, 754 (2014) ("[T]he legislature has
provided that in construing all statutes, '[w]ords