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In re J.W.

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

July 3, 2019

IN RE J.W.

          Submitted: January 10, 2019

          8th Circuit Court-Keene Family Division

          Law Offices of Kelly E. Dowd, PLLC, of Keene (Kelly E. Dowd on the brief), for the petitioners.

          Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Laura E. B. Lombardi, senior assistant attorney general, on the memorandum of law), as amicus curiae.

          HANTZ MARCONI, J.

         The 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 affirm.

         The 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 2017.

         M.F. 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.

         Adoption 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.

         We turn 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 separated;
(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.

         A brief 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).

         In 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)]."[1]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 ...


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