Have the workings of dividends and dividend distributions mystified you too? Chances are it's not the concept of dividends that confuses you; the ex-dividend date and date of record are the tricky factors. In this article we'll sort through the dividend payment process and explain on what date the buyer of the stock gets to keep the dividend.

Before we explain how it all works, let's go over some of the basics to ensure we have the proper foundation to understand the more complex issues. Some investment terms are thrown around more often than Frisbees on a hot summer day, so it's important that we define exactly what we're talking about.

Different Types of Dividends
The decision to distribute a dividend is made by a company's board of directors. There is nothing requiring a company to pay a dividend, even if the company has paid dividends in the past. However, many investors view a steady dividend history as an important indicator of a good investment, so most companies are reluctant to reduce or stop their dividend payments. (For more information on buying dividend paying stocks, see the articles How Dividends Work for Investors and The Importance of Dividends.)

Dividends can be paid in various different forms, but there are two major categories: cash and stock. The most popular are cash dividends. This is money paid to stockholders, normally out of the corporation's current earnings or accumulated profits.

For example, suppose you own 100 shares of Cory's Brewing Company (ticker: CBC). Cory has made record sales this year thanks to an unusually high demand for his unique peach flavored beer. The company therefore decides to share some of this good fortune with the stockholders and declares a dividend of $0.10 per share. This means that you will receive a check from Cory's Brewing Company for $10.00 ($0.10*100). In practice, companies that pay dividends usually do so on a regular basis of four times a year. A one-time dividend such as the one we just described is referred to as an extra dividend.

The stock dividend, the second most common dividend paying method, pays additional shares rather than cash. Suppose that Cory's Brewing Company wishes to issue a dividend but doesn't have the necessary cash available to pay everyone. He does, however, have enough Treasury stock to meet the requirements of the dividend payout. So instead of paying cash, Cory decides to issue a dividend of 0.05 new shares of CBC for every existing one. This means that you will receive five shares of CBC for every 100 shares that you own. If any fractional shares are left over, the dividend is paid as cash (because stocks can't trade fractionally).

Another type of dividend is the property dividend, but it is used rarely. This type of allocation is a physical transfer of a tangible asset from the company to the investors. For instance, if Cory's Brewing Company was still insistent on paying out dividends but didn't have enough Treasury stock or enough money to pay out all investors, the company could look for something physical (property) to distribute. In this case, Cory might decide that his unique peach beer would be the best substitute, so he could distribute a couple of six-packs to all the shareholders.

The Important Dates of a Dividend
There are four major dates in the process of a company paying dividends:

  • Declaration date - This is the date on which the board of directors announces to shareholders and the market as a whole that the company will pay a dividend.
  • Ex-date or Ex-dividend date - On (or after) this date the security trades without its dividend. If you buy a dividend paying stock one day before the ex-dividend you will still get the dividend, but if you buy on the ex-dividend date, you won't get the dividend. Conversely, if you want to sell a stock and still receive a dividend that has been declared you need to sell on (or after) the ex-dividend day. The ex-date is the second business day before the date of record.
  • Date of record - This is the date on which the company looks at its records to see who the shareholders of the company are. An investor must be listed as a holder of record to ensure the right of a dividend payout.
  • Date of payment (payable date) - This is the date the company mails out the dividend to the holder of record. This date is generally a week or more after the date of record so that the company has sufficient time to ensure that it accurately pays all those who are entitled.

Why All These Dates?
Ex-dividend dates are used to make sure dividend checks go to the right people. In today's market, settlement of stocks is a T+3 process, which means that when you buy a stock, it takes three days from the transaction date (T) for the change to be entered into the company's record books.

As mentioned, if you are not in the company's record books on the date of record, you won't receive the dividend payment. To ensure that you are in the record books, you need to buy the stock at least three business days before the date of record, which also happens to be the day before the ex-dividend date.

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As you can see by the diagram above, if you buy on the ex-dividend date (Tuesday), which is only two business days before the date of record, you will not receive the dividend because your name will not appear in the company's record books until Friday. If you want to buy the stock and receive the dividend, you need to buy it on Monday. (When the stock is trading with the dividend the term cum dividend is used). But, if you want to sell the stock and still receive the dividend, you need to sell on or after Tuesday the 6th.

*Note: Different rules apply if the dividend is 25% or greater of the value of the security. In this case, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) indicates that the ex-date is the first business day following the payable date. For further details on dividend issues, search FINRA's website.

A Money Machine?
Now that we understand that a dividend can be received by purchasing the stock before the ex-date, can we make more money? Nope, it's not that easy. Remember, everybody knows when the dividend is going to be paid, and the market sees the dividend payout as a time when the company is giving out a part of its profits (reducing its cash). So the price of the stock will drop approximately by the amount of the dividend on the ex-dividend date. The word "approximately" is crucial here. Due to tax considerations and other happenings in the market, the actual drop in price may be slightly different. In any case, the point is that you can't make free profits on the ex-dividend date.

The reasons for and effects of all these dates are by no means easy to grasp. It's important to clear up any confusion between ex-dividend and record dates. But always keep in mind that when you're investing in a dividend paying stock, it's more crucial to consider the quality of the company than the date on which you buy in.

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