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26.5 Dividends

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss several types of dividends.
  2. Review legal limitations on distributing dividends.
  3. Define the duties of directors when paying dividends.

Types of Dividends

A dividendA share of a corporation’s profits. is a share of profits, a dividing up of the company’s earnings. The law does not require a corporation to give out a specific type of dividend.

Cash Dividend

If a company’s finances are such that it can declare a dividend to stockholders, a cash dividend always is permissible. It is a payment (by check, ordinarily) to the stockholders of a certain amount of money per share. Under current law, qualified dividends are taxed as a long-term capital gain (usually 15 percent, but the figure can be as low as zero percent under current law). These rules are set to expire in 2013, when dividends will be taxed as ordinary income (i.e., at the recipient’s ordinary income tax rate).

Stock Dividend

Next to cash, the most frequent type of dividend is stock itself. Normally, the corporation declares a small percentage dividend (between 1 and 10 percent), so that a holder of one hundred shares would receive four new shares on a 4 percent dividend share. Although each shareholder winds up with more stock, he realizes no personal net gain at that moment, as he would with a cash dividend, because each stockholder has the same relative proportion of shares and has not sold or otherwise transferred the shares or dividend. The total outstanding stock represents no greater amount of assets than before. The corporation may issue share dividends either from treasury stock or from authorized but unissued shares.

Property Dividend

Rarely, corporations pay dividends in property rather than in cash. Armand Hammer, the legendary financier and CEO of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, recounts how during World War II he founded a liquor business by buying shares of the American Distilling Company. American Distilling was giving out one barrel of whiskey per share as a dividend. Whiskey was in short supply during the war, so Hammer bought five thousand shares and took five thousand barrels of whiskey as a dividend.

Stock Split

A stock dividend should be distinguished from a stock split. In a stock splitIncreasing the number of a firm’s outstanding shares by issuing more shares to current shareholders, adjusting the price to keep the firm’s market capitalization the same., one share is divided into more shares—for example, a two-for-one split means that for every one share the stockholder owned before the split, he now has two shares. In a reverse stock split, shares are absorbed into one. In a one-for-two reverse split, the stockholder will get one share in place of the two he held before the split.

The stock split has no effect on the assets of the company, nor is the interest of any shareholder diluted. No transfer from surplus into stated capital is necessary. The only necessary accounting change is the adjustment of par value and stated value. Because par value is being changed, many states require not only the board of directors but also the shareholders to approve a stock split.

Why split? The chief reason is to reduce the current market price of the stock in order to make it affordable to a much wider class of investors. For example, in 1978, IBM, whose stock was then selling for around $284, split four for one, reducing the price to about $70 a share. That was the lowest IBM’s stock had been since 1932. Stock need not sell at stratospheric prices to be split, however; for example, American Telnet Corporation, whose stock had been selling at $0.4375 a share, declared a five-for-one split in 1980. Apparently the company felt that the stock would be more affordable at $0.0875 a share. At the opposite end of the spectrum are Class A shares of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which routinely trade for more than $100,000 a share. Buffett has rebuffed efforts to split the Class A shares, but in 2010, shareholders approved a fifty-for-one split of Class B shares.BusinessWeek covers many stock splits and reverse splits in its finance section, available at

Legal Limitations on Dividends

The law imposes certain limitations on cash or property dividends a corporation may disburse. Dividends may not be paid if (1) the business is insolvent (i.e., unable to pay its debts as they become due), (2) paying dividends would make it insolvent, or (3) payment would violate a restriction in the articles of incorporation. Most states also restrict the funds available for distribution to those available in earned surplus. Under this rule, a corporation that ran a deficit in the current year could still declare a dividend as long as the total earned surplus offset the deficit.

A few states—significantly, Delaware is one of them—permit dividends to be paid out of the net of current earnings and those of the immediately preceding year, both years taken as a single period, even if the balance sheet shows a negative earned surplus. Such dividends are known as nimble dividends. See Weinberg v. Baltimore Brick Co.Weinberg v. Baltimore Brick Co., 35 Del. Ch. 225; 114 A.2d 812 (Del. 1955).

Distribution from Capital Surplus

Assets in the form of cash or property may be distributed from capital surplus if the articles of incorporation so provide or if shareholders approve the distribution. Such distributions must be identified to the shareholders as coming from capital surplus.

Record Date, Payment Date, Rights of Stockholders

Under the securities exchange rules, the board of directors cannot simply declare a dividend payable on the date of the board meeting and instruct the treasurer to hand out cash. The board must fix two dates: a record date and a payment date. By the first, the board declares a dividend for shareholders of record as of a certain future date—perhaps ten days hence. Actual payment of the dividend is postponed until the payment date, which could be a month after the record date.

The board’s action creates a debtor-creditor relationship between the corporation and its shareholders. The company may not revoke a cash dividend unless the shareholders consent. It may revoke a share dividend as long as the shares have not been issued.

Discretion of Directors to Pay Dividends

When Directors Are Too Stingy

In every state, dividends are normally payable only at the discretion of the directors. Courts will order distribution only if they are expressly mandatory or if it can be shown that the directors abused their discretion by acting fraudulently or in a manner that was manifestly unreasonable. Dodge v. Ford Motor Co., (see Section 26.7.2 "Payment of Dividends"), involves Henry Ford’s refusal in 1916 to pay dividends in order to reinvest profits; it is often celebrated in business annals because of Ford’s testimony at trial, although, as it turned out, the courts held his refusal to be an act of miserliness and an abuse of discretion. Despite this ruling, many corporations today do not pay dividends. Corporations may decide to reinvest profits in the corporation rather than pay a dividend to its shareholders, or to just sit on the cash. For example, Apple Computer, Inc., maker of many popular computers and consumer electronics, saw its share price skyrocket in the late 2000s. Apple also became one of the most valuable corporations in the world. Despite an immense cash reserve, Apple has refused to pay a dividend, choosing instead to reinvest in the business, stating that they require a large cash reserve as a security blanket for acquisitions or to develop new products. Thus despite the ruling in Dodge v. Ford Motor Co., courts will usually not intercede in a corporation’s decision not to pay dividends, following the business judgment rule and the duties of directors. (For further discussion of the duties of directors, see Chapter 27 "Corporate Powers and Management").

When Directors Are Too Generous

Directors who vote to declare and distribute dividends in excess of those allowed by law or by provisions in the articles of incorporation personally may become jointly and severally liable to the corporation (but liability may be reduced or eliminated under the business judgment rule). Shareholders who receive a dividend knowing it is unlawful must repay any directors held liable for voting the illegal dividend. The directors are said to be entitled to contribution from such shareholders. Even when directors have not been sued, some courts have held that shareholders must repay dividends received when the corporation is insolvent or when they know that the dividends are illegal.

Key Takeaway

A dividend is a payment made from the corporation to its shareholders. A corporation may pay dividends through a variety of methods, although money and additional shares are the most common. Corporations may increase or decrease the total number of shares through either a stock split or a reverse stock split. A corporation may decide to pay dividends but is not required to do so and cannot issue dividends if the corporation is insolvent. Directors may be liable to the corporation for dividend payments that violate the articles of incorporation or are illegal.


  1. What is a dividend, and what are the main types of dividends?
  2. Is a corporation required to pay dividends? Under what circumstances is a corporation barred from paying dividends?
  3. You have ten shares of BCT, valued at $10 each. The company engages in a two-for-one stock split. How many shares do you now have? What is the value of each share, and what is the total value of all of your BCT shares?