Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Dividend

Quick Summary of Dividend

A portion of profits distributed by a corporation to its shareholders based on the type of stock and number of shares owned. Dividends are usually paid in cash, though they may also be paid in the form of additional shares of stock or other property. The amount of a dividend is established by the corporation’s board of directors; however, state laws often restrict a corporation’s ability to declare dividends by requiring a minimum level of profits or assets before the dividend can be approved.

What is the dictionary definition of Dividend?

Dictionary Definition

A dividend is the part of a company’s profits that are distributed to shareholders.

1. arithmetic A number or expression that is to be divided by another.
2. finance A pro-rata payment of money by a company to its shareholders, usually made periodically (eg, quarterly or annually).

A dividend is a payment by a corporation to its shareholders. Dividend payment may come in different forms, such as cash, stock, or (rarely) property. For most shareholders, dividend payments are taxable as ordinary income. All decisions concerning dividend imbursement are made by the board of directors of the corporation. Although in principle dividends are portions of company earnings, most corporations are not eligible to receive tax deductions on dividend payment. Traditionally, dividends tend to be offered by well established, stable, secure blue-chip companies. In effect, the financial reward offered by the dividend compensates for a rather stagnant movement of the stock. Conversely, more dynamic companies do not offer dividends as their profits are reinvested to secure superior growth.

Full Definition of Dividend

A dividend is the distribution of profits to a company’s shareholders.

The primary purpose of any business is to create profit for its owners, and the dividend is the most important way the business fulfills this mission. When a company earns a profit, some of this money is typically reinvested in the business and called retained earnings, and some of it can be paid to its shareholders as a dividend. Paying dividends reduces the amount of cash available to the business, but the distribution of profit to the owners is, after all, the purpose of the business.

Some companies pay “stock dividends” rather than cash dividends, in which case shareholders receive additional stock shares.

The amount of the dividend is determined every year at the company’s annual general meeting, and declared as either a cash amount or a percentage of the company’s profit; see The dividend decision. The dividend is the same for all shares of a given class (that is, preferred shares or common stock shares). Once declared, a dividend becomes a liability of the firm.

When a share is sold shortly before the dividend is to be paid, the seller rather than the buyer is entitled to the dividend. At the point at which the buyer is not entitled to the dividend if the share is sold, the share is said to go ex-dividend. This is usually two business days before the dividend is to be paid, depending on the rules of the stock exchange. When a share goes ex-dividend, its price will generally fall by the amount of the dividend.

The dividend is calculated mainly on the basis of the company’s unappropriated profit and its business prospects for the coming year. It is then proposed by the Executive Board and the Supervisory Board to the annual general meeting. At most companies, however, the amount of the dividend remains constant. This helps to reassure investors, especially during phases when earnings are low, and sends the message that the company is optimistic with respect to its future performance.

Some companies have dividend reinvestment plans. These plans allow shareholders to use dividends to systematically buy small amounts of stock often at no commission. Dividends are not yet paid in gold certificates although this idea has been discussed by mining companies such as Goldcorp.

Companies have often avoided paying dividends for several reasons:

  • Company management and the board believe that it is important for the company to take advantage of opportunities before it, and reinvest its recent profits in order to grow, which will ultimately benefit investors more than a dividend payout at present. This reasoning is sometimes right but is often wrong, and opponents of this reasoning (such as Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, who complained about the practice in the classic 1934 reference Security Analysis) usually note that this comprises company management dictating to the business’s owners how to invest their own money (i.e. the profit of the business).
  • When dividends are paid, shareholders in many countries, including the United States, suffer from double taxation of those dividends: the company pays income tax to the government when it earns any income, and then when the dividend is paid, the individual shareholder pays income tax to the government on the dividend payment. This is often used as justification for retaining earnings, or for performing a stock buyback, in which the company buys back stock, thereby increasing the value of the stock left outstanding. The shareholder pays no income tax on this transaction.

Microsoft is an example of a company that has historically been a proponent of retaining earnings; it did so from its IPO in 1986 until 2003, when it declared it would start paying dividends. By this point, Microsoft had accumulated over $43 billion in cash, and there had been increasing irritation from stockholders who believed this large pile of cash should lie in their hands and not in the company. Originally, the official reason to amass this large sum was to create a reserve for Microsoft’s legal battles; since then, Microsoft appears to have changed tactics such that the reserve is not as necessary.

In the United States, credit unions generally use the term “dividends” to refer to interest payments they make to depositors. These are not dividends in the normal sense and are not taxed as such; they are just interest payments. Credit unions call them dividends because, technically, credit unions are owned by their members, and the interest payments are therefore payments to owners.

The name comes from the arithmetic operation of division: if a / b = c then a is the dividend, b the divisor, and c the quotient.

Cum Dividend

A term applicable when a purchaser of a specific security is expected to receive a dividend that has been declared but is still not paid.


Trading shares when an announced dividend belongs to the seller rather than the buyer. A particular stock is granted ex-dividend status if a person has been corroborated by the company to take in dividend payment. Stock drops in price after the declaration of ex-date. A Drop-in price corresponds to the payout expected.

Dividend Payout Ratio

It is a percentage of total earnings that are paid to shareholders in the form of dividends. The dividend payout ratio is computed by:

Dividend payout ratio = Yearly dividend per share / Earnings per share or equally Dividend payout ratio= Dividends / Net income

This ratio gives an idea of the extent dividend payments are supported by earnings. More established companies tend to exhibit a greater payout ratio.

Why do companies pay dividends?

Some highly successful companies run into an odd conundrum — they might be making too much money. That is, they’re pulling in more cash than they could reinvest in their business at a high rate of return. Rather than redeploy that cash at low rates of return in at-the-margin projects, they simply return that cash to the company’s shareholders.

Broadly speaking, you’ve got four types of dividend payers:

1) The Zero Yielder – These are stocks that don’t pay dividends. Usually, they don’t do this for one of four reasons: They simply aren’t consistently profitable enough to pay dividends, they operate in a cyclical industry and need to maintain a strong balance sheet for when times turn tough, they’re still at a point in their growth cycle where management believes that marginal profits can still be reinvested in the company at rates exceeding their costs of capital, or that management simply doesn’t want to start paying a dividend, as it generally signals to the market lost confidence that the company can grow and that the company is taking on a strategic shift.

2) The Low Yielder (cue Low Rider) – These are names with yields in the range of 1% to 2%. These are companies that achieved some degree of financial stability, but still feel that they can comfortably reinvest in the business for economic profits. Typically, this is where you see the highest rate of dividend growth, as both earnings and its payout ratio can be climbing at the same time. Their payout ratios are in the ballpark of 10% to 20%.

3) The Stalwart – Stalwarts produce tons of cash and redistribute much if not most of it to shareholders (40% to 70% of earnings). They simply can’t reinvest all of it at rates above their costs of capital. These companies usually have at least a narrow economic moat which allowed them to get to this phase in the first place. There’s not tons of growth ahead, but some, and the company is a long way from running into a growth wall or, worse, starting a slow decline.

4) The High Yielder – These are stocks that pay yields in the mid-single digits or higher. Typically, they’re either forced to pay high yields because of their corporate structure (MLPs, REITs, royalty trusts, etc.) or their businesses in decline, and shares are priced in such as way as to make the yields extremely high. With the former group, there’s a lot to love: These are businesses that usually produce tons of consistent free cash flow and still have growth potential.

Why buy stocks that pay dividends?

Dividends come out of earnings. Or, more specifically, free cash flow. A consistent, rising dividend payment is usually a hallmark of a solid, well-run business that generates substantial, consistent cash flow. All things being equal, that equates to a relatively stable business and a stock that might be a little less volatile than the market at-large. In other words, they’re usually lower risk than companies that don’t pay dividends.

Many investors rely on dividends as a source of retirement income. Some companies have a history of increasing dividends as their earnings increase. The potential for increased income coupled with their lower risk profiles, makes dividend-paying stocks a particularly attractive choice for retirees.

Finally, when stocks go down, the yield of the stock often will put a floor under the share price. If the stock price falls by half, the yield doubles. That can be a very nice source of income while you wait for recovery. And it’s peace of mind insurance.

And don’t forget that qualified dividends get special income tax treatment. Essentially, dividends get taxed at capital gains rates. That also makes dividend income more attractive–especially for people in upper tax brackets.

The important dates

With dividends, there are four dates that are important. These are, in order of occurrence:

  1. Announcement
  2. Ex-dividend
  3. Date of record
  4. Payment


This one is pretty self-explanatory — the day the dividend is announced. The announcement contains the amount, when the cash will be paid out, and to whom.


Also known as “ex-div”, this is the date on which new purchases of the stock are no longer eligible to receive that particular dividend. The stock then trades “ex-dividend,” that is “without” the dividend. On that day, the exchange reduces the price per share by the amount of the dividend. For most dividends and most stocks, you will hardly notice any price change, just because of the noise of daily trading, but for large dividends (such as the $3 special dividend Microsoft paid a few years ago), it’s much more apparent. If you sell the shares on this date, you will still receive the dividend. Actually, if you sell the shares that are eligible any time before the payment date, you still receive the dividend.

Note, if you already own shares before the ex-div date, but buy more shares on or after the ex-div date, you’ll still receive the dividend on that first group. You just won’t receive the dividend on the new group.

Date of record

This is the settlement date by which you have to be the owner of record. Because it takes two business days for trades to settle, this is almost always two trading days after the ex-div date. So, if the ex-div date is this coming Tuesday, the date of record is Thursday. You have to enter an order to purchase a stock and have it filled on or before this coming Monday. You will be the owner of record on Wednesday when the trade settles, so you satisfy the “owner of record” requirement on Thursday.


Finally! This is when you actually receive the cash into your account. Another easy explanation. If your dividend is automatically reinvested into more shares by your broker or through a DRIP, then it will be done at one of the prices that the stock is trading for on this date, not the ex-div date or date of record.

Dividends and basis

Cash dividends

For U.S. taxpayers, according to the IRS, cash dividends do not reduce the basis of a stock purchase. For instance, if your company pays an annual dividend of $0.40 and you bought at $30, you do not get to reduce your basis to $29.60.

If you are reinvesting the dividends in a taxable account, then each reinvestment is treated as a new purchase with its own basis. You cannot just add all the shares together and use your original basis (another way of reducing basis).

Here is an example: You buy 100 shares of $20 stock with a commission of $10. Your basis is 100 x $20 + $10 = $2,010. The stock pays a single annual dividend of 5% (the yield when you bought it, or $1 per share). Dividend time rolls around and you receive $100 for the 100 shares, of which you owe Uncle Sam $15, assuming a 15% tax rate. That $100 is reinvested into more shares, but now the price is $25, so it buys 4 shares.

Your basis is NOT $2,110 for 104 shares ($20.2885 / sh). (For why not, see below.) You can’t use an average basis, even if the original and reinvested prices were identical, because you didn’t take commissions into account (which are added to your basis when you buy). Instead, your basis is as follows:

  • 100 shares, $2,010 ($20.10 / sh)
  • 4 shares, $100 ($25 / sh)

Going further, a year later, the company has raised the dividend 10% and you receive $114.40 in dividends (104 sh x $1.10 / sh). You’ll owe Uncle Sam $17.16, again assuming a 15% tax rate. The money is reinvested at a price of $27. Your basis is now as follows:

  • 100 shares, $2,010 ($20.10 / sh)
  • 4 shares, $100 ($25 / sh)
  • 4.237 shares, $114.40 ($27 / sh)

And so on.

A spreadsheet makes this much easier to track and Foolish investors will use one.

In other words, each purchase has its own basis and this must be tracked. The IRS does not allow the basis of shares of stock to be calculated using an average basis. Mutual funds, yes (taxpayer’s choice to use average basis or individual purchase basis). Stocks, no.

Now, it comes time to sell the shares. You sell before the next ex-dividend date, so you don’t receive another dividend. Your sale price is $35 (it had a good run-up) and you pay another $10 commission, selling your entire holding. How much capital gain do you have?

Well, you have 108.237 shares. You receive $3,778.30, net of that $10 commission. This is how it breaks out.

  • 100 shares is 92.3898% of 108.237 so this gets that proportion of the total proceeds of $3,490.77 and your long-term capital gain is $1,480.77 (proceeds minus basis).
  • 4 shares is 3.6956% of 108.237, so this gets $139.63 and your long-term capital gain is $39.63.
  • 4.237 shares is 3.9146% of 108.237, so this gets $147.90 and your short-term capital gain is $33.50 (you had these shares for less than a year).

It is because of the possibility of having a short-term capital gain for some of the shares that one must track the basis of the individual purchases. Hold a company long enough, and it is possible to receive as many shares from the dividend reinvestment as were originally purchased. That makes selling those last ones, the short-term ones, a significant taxable event.

For more information, see IRS Publications, below.

Stock dividends

From the investor’s point of view, there is not much difference between a stock split and a stock dividend. In both cases, you end up with more shares that are, individually, worth less (but the total dollar value remains unchanged). There are differences from the company’s point of view, and they relate to how the company wants to handle the par value of the stock and the total amount in that account. (This account is in the stockholder’s equity portion of the balance sheet.)

In a true stock split, the company technically calls in all of its outstanding shares and issues new shares totaling more than it called in. For instance, if there are 1 million shares outstanding and the company declares a 3-for-2 stock split, it calls in all 1 million shares and then issues 1.5 million new ones. The effect to the stock’s par value — the carrying value of each share of stock found on the balance sheet — is to change it by the inverse of the split ratio. For this example, the par value would be 67% of the original par value. The total amount of dollars in the par value account remains unchanged.

What you are concerned about is your basis. This is also reduced by the same ratio. If you had 100 shares at $60 each before, you would have 150 shares at $40 each afterward, using the example of the 3:2 split.

Often, though, the company actually issues new shares in the form of a stock dividend. In the above situation, it would be in the form of a 50% stock dividend. The difference from the company’s point of view is in the accounting. Here, it transfers retained earnings into an account called “common stock at par value,” increasing that account’s balance. In the above situation, if par value were $5 per share, then there would be a $2.5 million decrease in retained earnings and a corresponding increase in common stock at par value. Unlike with a stock split, there is no change in par value.

Some stock dividends are accounted for slightly differently, but the net effect is a movement of money from retained earnings into other accounts within the equity portion of the balance sheet. There’s no effect for you, but the details matter to the company.

In this situation, your basis is adjusted downward depending on the amount of new stock received and the original basis of the stock originally owned. For instance, for a 20% stock dividend, if you had 100 shares at $30 and 200 shares at $40, your new basis would be $25 for 120 shares ($3,000/120) and $33.33 for 240 shares ($8,000/240).

Unless you receive cash in lieu of fractional shares of stock, neither stock splits nor stock dividends are taxable events to you until you sell the stock. However, you do need to keep track of the new basis for your shares. For more information, see Publication 550, Chapter 4, from the IRS.

Return of capital

At times, especially for large one-time dividends, part of the cash paid to the shareholder is a “dividend” and part is “return of capital.” The former is treated as a cash dividend and is taxable in the year in which it is paid.

The return of capital, on the other hand, is not taxable. Instead, it actually lowers the basis of your shares. This is the only part of a “dividend” that does this.

For instance, if you own 100 shares at a basis of $2,010, as noted above, and the company pays a $5 dividend which includes $2 of return of capital, the basis for those shares will be reduced by $200 ($2 x 100 shares) to $1,810.

Never fear, though. The IRS is not giving up on its taxes (much as we can hope). It will get its cut when it comes time to sell the shares by increasing the total capital gain. To illustrate, suppose you sell those 100 shares at $25 each with a $10 commission. Without the return of capital, the gain would be $2,490 – $2,010 = $480. With the return of capital, the gain would be $2,490 – $1,810 = $680 (there’s that $200 that you got returned showing up as an increase in the capital gain realized).

If the return of capital actually reduces the basis to below $0, then the basis becomes $0 and the difference is immediately taxable. For instance, if the basis for those 100 shares is $150, then the $200 return of capital would reduce the basis to $0, and $50 would be taxable that year.

Cite Term

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Definition Sources

Definitions for Dividend are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 5th August, 2021 | 79 Views.