After the Fact, Put it Off
If a family doesn't make a plan for heirlooms in advance, one of the worst things the surviving members can do is try to figure out all those details right away. Emotions are running high, and even the closest siblings in the world can end up saying hurtful things and opening up familial chasms that can then take years to heal.
The going rule of thumb is to wait at least six months before dealing with a parent's possessions. Put everything in storage for the duration if you have to. When everyone can handle the process without severe mental turmoil, visit the facility together and start maturely discussing who would like what. Start a tally to help balance things out, weighing desire for each item on a sliding scale. With everyone in a rational and respectful frame of mind, peaceful civility can reign while bitter feuding can be kept to a minimum.
Your immediate family members may not be the only people who need to be involved in the process. Even if your children are the only ones with a real say, there may be other people who should -- or at least think they should -- be involved.
Think of the aunt who spent tons of time and energy devoted to caring for her aging sister during the prolonged final illness, or the uncle who was like a second father after his favorite brother had a heart attack early in life. Do these people need to be completely excluded from the process? Of course not. Maybe ask if there are a couple of heirlooms that would mean the world to them, or allow them one or two picks after the main items are settled. But to deem them unworthy of anything seems pretty harsh. If they're old enough, grandchildren may even like to go through trinkets or costume jewelry to find mementos of their grandparents.
Once you reach a consensus among the loving and kind members of the family -- you know, the ones who know how to reasonably listen to and empathize with one another -- how do you deal with black sheep and the like? We'll get into that on the next page.