If a company has excess earnings and decides to pay a dividend to common shareholders, an amount is declared along with a payable date. Usually, this is determined quarterly after a company finalizes its income statement and the board of directors meets to review the financials.
How dividends are paid out
Dividends are usually paid in the form of a dividend check, but they may also be paid in additional shares of stock. The standard practice for payment of dividends is a check that is usually mailed to stockholders a few days after the ex-dividend date, the date on which the stock starts trading without the previously declared dividend.
The alternative method of paying dividends is in the form of additional shares of stock. This practice is known as dividend reinvestment and is commonly offered as a dividend payment option by individual companies and mutual funds. Dividends are taxable income regardless of the form in which they are paid.
Dividend reinvestment plans, known as DRIPs, offer a number of advantages to investors. If the investor prefers to simply add to his or her current equity holdings with any additional funds from dividend payments, automatic dividend reinvestment simplifies this process as opposed to receiving the dividend payment in cash and then using the cash to purchase additional shares. Company-operated DRIPs are usually commission-free since they bypass using a broker. This feature is particularly appealing to small investors since commission fees are proportionately larger for smaller purchases of stock.
Another potential benefit of dividend reinvestment plans is that some companies offer stockholders the option to purchase additional shares in cash at a discount. With a discount from 1-10%, plus the added benefit of not paying commission fees, investors can acquire additional stock holdings at an advantageous price over investors who purchase shares in cash through a brokerage firm.
When to expect a stock dividend payment
If a dividend is declared, shareholders are notified via press release and the information is usually reported through major stock quoting services for easy reference. At the time of declaration, a record date is set, meaning all shareholders on record on that date are entitled to the dividend payment. The day following the record date is called the ex-date or date the stock begins trading ex-dividend. This means that a buyer on ex-date is purchasing shares that are not entitled to receive the most recent dividend payment. The payable date follows usually about one month after the record date.
On the payable date, the company deposits the funds for disbursement to shareholders with the Depository Trust Company (DTC). Cash payments are then disbursed by the DTC to brokerage firms around the world where shareholders hold the company's shares. The recipient firms appropriately apply cash dividends to client accounts or process reinvestment transactions as per a client's instructions.
Tax implications for the dividend payments vary depending on the type of dividend declared, account type where the shareholder owns the shares and how long the shareholder has owned the shares. Dividend payments are summarized for each tax year on Form 1099-DIV for tax purposes.
Read more about the steps involved from announcing a dividend to receiving it in these related articles - Introduction to Dividends and Dissecting Declarations, Ex-Dividends, and Record Dates.