After all is said and done, companies that have made a profit can do one of two things with the excess cash. They can (1) take the money and reinvest it to earn even more money, or (2) take the excess funds and divide them among the company's owners, the shareholders, in the form of a dividend.

If the company decides to pay out dividends, the earnings are taxed twice by the government because of the transfer of the money from the company to the shareholders. The first taxation occurs at the company's year-end when it must pay taxes on its earnings. The second taxation occurs when the shareholders receive the dividends, which come from the company's after-tax earnings. The shareholders pay taxes first as owners of a company that brings in earnings and then again as individuals, who must pay income taxes on their own personal dividend earnings.

This may not seem like a big deal to some people who don't really earn substantial amounts of dividend income, but it does bother those whose dividend earnings are larger. Consider this: you work all week and get a paycheck from which tax is deducted. After arriving home, you give your children their weekly allowances, and then an IRS representative shows up at your front door to take a portion of the money you give to your kids. You would complain since you already paid taxes on the money you earned, but in the context of dividend payouts double taxation of earnings is legal.

The double taxation also poses a dilemma to CEOs of companies when deciding whether to reinvest the company's earnings internally. Because the government takes two bites out of the money paid as dividends, it may seem more logical for the company to reinvest the money into projects that may instead give sharholders earnings in capital gains. (For more on this subject, check out Investment Tax Basics For All Investors and Dividend Facts You May Not Know.)

Advisor Insight

Donald P. Gould
Gould Asset Management, Claremont, CA

First, let's understand what a dividend is. When a corporation makes a profit, it pays income tax on that profit, the way individuals pay income tax on their wages. The money left over is called the "profit after tax" (PAT). When a company distributes its PAT among its shareholders, such distributions are known as "dividends."

Say that you own Apple Inc. shares that pay $228 in dividends a year. You must report the $228 on your tax return and, depending on your tax bracket, pay federal and state income tax on it. Because Apple paid tax on its profits, and then you paid tax on the dividends, it’s called double taxation of dividends. In fact, it’s double taxation of corporate profits; the dividends are only taxed once. Some firm deliberately don’t pay dividends just to avoid the syndrome.