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A dividend is a distribution of profits by a corporation to its shareholders. When a corporation earns a profit or surplus, it is able to pay a portion of the profit as a dividend to shareholders. Any amount not distributed is taken to be re-invested in the business (called retained earnings). The current year profit as well as the retained earnings of previous years are available for distribution; a corporation is usually prohibited from paying a dividend out of its capital. Distribution to shareholders may be in cash (usually by bank transfer) or, if the corporation has a dividend reinvestment plan, the amount can be paid by the issue of further shares or by share repurchase. In some cases, the distribution may be of assets.
The dividend received by a shareholder is income of the shareholder and may be subject to income tax (see dividend tax). The tax treatment of this income varies considerably between jurisdictions. The corporation does not receive a tax deduction for the dividends it pays.
A dividend is allocated as a fixed amount per share, with shareholders receiving a dividend in proportion to their shareholding. Dividends can provide at least temporarily stable income and raise morale among shareholders, but are not guaranteed to continue. For the joint-stock company, paying dividends is not an expense; rather, it is the division of after-tax profits among shareholders. Retained earnings (profits that have not been distributed as dividends) are shown in the shareholders' equity section on the company's balance sheet – the same as its issued share capital. Public companies usually pay dividends on a fixed schedule, but may cancel a scheduled dividend, or declare an unscheduled dividend at any time, sometimes called a special dividend to distinguish it from the regular dividends. (more usually a special dividend is paid at the same time as the regular dividend, but for a one-off higher amount). Cooperatives, on the other hand, allocate dividends according to members' activity, so their dividends are often considered to be a pre-tax expense.
The usually fixed payments to holders of preference shares (or preferred stock in American English) are classed as dividends. The word dividend comes from the Latin word dividendum ("thing to be divided").