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Creating Your Baby's Last Name? Tennessee Says No

Kim Sarubbi, her husband, Carl Abramson, and their three children are known as the Sabr family, which is a blend of the couple's surnames.
Courtesy of the Sabr family
Kim Sarubbi, her husband, Carl Abramson, and their three children are known as the Sabr family, which is a blend of the couple's surnames.

When naming a child, some parents opt for one of the parents' last names, some hyphenate the two. Still others invent a hybrid surname for their kids — though one Tennessee family discovered that state law bars them from doing that.

Kim Sarubbi runs a digital consulting firm. Her husband, Carl Abramson, is a chiropractor. The couple moved to Nashville from Santa Monica, Calif. Their first two kids were born outside Tennessee, and their last names are a blend of their parents' surnames, Sarubbi and Abramson.

"We said, 'All right, if we take the first three letters of each of our names,'a-b-r' and 's-a-r,' it perfectly combines to 's-a-b-r.' Sabr," Abramson says.

"That's a great alternative 'cause I don't want to change my name," Sarubbi says. "I don't think it's fair for all of them to have my last name, even though I'm pushing them out. But, you know, it's a great compromise."

The name Sabr is on their doormat; it's engraved onto their kitchen cookware. And they sign holiday cards "the Sabr family."

When their oldest child was a baby, the family once got held up at airport security because the baby's name was on a no-fly list. They discovered that Sabr is an Arabic name. Guards eventually let them through.

"With the first two, there was never an issue. It wasn't even a thought. We figured, 'Oh, we can name our children whatever we want,' " Abramson says.

Then they moved to Tennessee.

In June this year, their third child was born. They named him Camden Sabr. Soon after coming home from the hospital, they received a document from the vital records office with the name "Sabr" crossed out.

"And they say, 'Sorry, you cannot choose that name,' " Abramson says.

Eddie Weeks, the state's law librarian, says a 1970s Tennessee law "makes it point-blank clear that, no, you cannot combine two names in any way other than the whole last name of both parents, or either surname of either parent."

To be clear, the Sabrs could go to court and pay $150 to change the baby's name. But they don't want to have to do that. They want to put whatever name they want for their kid on the birth certificate.

"Genealogists are going to go crazy if everyone makes up a last name. It would be as if everybody was in witness protection," saysLaura Carpenter, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University. She says name-meshing is still relatively rare. She knows one couple, named Mills and Hacket, who now go by the name Milket. Carpenter says families these days think differently about what surnames represent.

"Passing on last names could be becoming less important as divorce is becoming more common and people grow up in families with three or four different last names — and that's not uncommon," she says.

Abramson, meanwhile, is on a crusade. He has a binder thick with legal paperwork. He has hired an attorney and plans to file a lawsuit against the state, in the hopes of changing the law and clearing the way for other Sabrs out there.

Copyright 2021 WPLN News. To see more, visit WPLN News.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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