Ex-Dividend Date Definition and Explanation

Understanding How the Ex-Dividend Date Works

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When you begin to invest in stocks, one of the things you're going to need to know about is the ex-dividend date or the ex-date as it is sometimes known. The odds are more than good that many, if not most, of the companies in which you acquire an ownership stake will distribute regular cash dividends at some point in the future. What is the definition of the ex-dividend date? Why should you care, and how does it influence your stocks?

What Is the Ex-Dividend Date?

You might think that when a company's shares are traded over-the-counter or on a stock exchange, it could become a thorny legal question to determine who is entitled to an upcoming dividend—the seller who owned the stock at the time the dividend was announced or the new owner who now holds ownership when that dividend is actually paid. These days, it's not a big deal at all. No matter how quickly shares trade hands, or how many owners hold a stock between the date the dividend is announced and the date it is actually sent out in the mail or direct deposited, through a series of cultural and legal practices that have developed over time, the United States has settled upon a multi-date system that takes the guesswork out of the equation. One of these dates is called the ex-dividend date. 

First, a company generates a net profit by selling goods or services for more than it costs to manufacturer or source, distribute, sell, install, and service.

Next, to reward the owners who have risked their capital by investing in the business, the board of directors, elected by stockholders to represent them, votes to take some of the profit and send it out as a cash dividend. The board of directors decides how much cash the firm can afford to pay after accounting for things like expected debt servicing obligations, expansion plans, and more. This is the reason young, high-growth firms pay no dividends, and mature businesses pay considerable dividends.

A good company tends to have a long-established record of raising the dividend by a rate substantially higher than inflation over many, many decades due to a strong core economic engine that frequently enjoys high returns on capital and some sort of major competitive advantage. If you hold the stock long enough, and the dividend growth record and/or yield are sufficient, at some point, you will get back more than all of the money you invested. Companies with the best dividend records come to be known as blue-chip stocks

At the time the dividend is discussed by the board, four specific dates are scheduled. First, there is the dividend declaration date. This is the date on which the company announces it is paying a dividend, often through a press release on Business Wire and/or by publishing an announcement on its website. On the dividend declaration date, the dividend record date and ex-dividend date are also announced so investors can make plans.

Next, there is the dividend record date. This is the date on which the corporation's shareholder roster will be frozen for the purposes of determining who is eligible to receive the dividend. If you do not hold shares on the dividend record date, you will not get that specific dividend distribution even if you buy the stock before it is paid out to shareholders.

However, changes to a corporation's shareholder records take the time to record. The buy and sell information has to be submitted to the transfer agent to make sure the old owner's shares are transferred to the new owner and the books are current. Otherwise, the wrong person might get the dividend. As a solution, the practice developed to declare a third date, known as the ex-dividend date. In the United States, the ex-dividend date is almost always two business days before the dividend record date we just discussed. This provides the necessary time to get the paperwork and electronic records sorted. In the United Kingdom, the ex-dividend date is no longer two business days prior to the record date but, rather, one trading day prior due to a change in policy that went into effect on October 9th, 2014.

Finally, there is the dividend payment date. This is the date when the cash actually shows up for stockholders; the money sitting right there, in your brokerage account or checking account, ready to spend.

A good way to remember this: A company issues an announcement about an upcoming dividend. If you don't own a stock on the ex-dividend date, you won't be recorded on the dividend record date and, therefore, you won't receive the dividend on the dividend payment date.

Note those special dividends, stock splits that are structured as dividends in excess of 25% of the market value of the stock, and certain other distributions may follow different rules or customs depending upon the circumstances.

What Happens on the Ex-Dividend Date?

The ex-dividend date is extremely important because it becomes the effective date on which the right to receive an upcoming, scheduled dividend changes hands from the buyer to the seller. To be specific:

  • If you buy a stock, mutual fund, or other financial security that has declared a dividend before the ex-dividend date, you, the new owner, are entitled to receive that upcoming dividend. That is because the books will be updated with your information prior to the record date so the company will know to send you the money.
  • If you buy a stock, mutual fund, or other financial security that has declared a dividend on or after the ex-dividend date, the old owner (the seller) will still receive that specific, scheduled upcoming dividend even though they sold the asset to you. That is because the books won't have been updated with your information prior to the record date so the company won't know to send you the money.

To account for the transfer of value that occurs on the ex-dividend date, the quoted value of a stock or other security will typically be adjusted downward by the amount of the expected upcoming future dividend. This makes it difficult or impossible for arbitragers to exploit the timing, extracting wealth that should have belonged to the shareholders. The system has become so efficient, investors who have trades pending (stop, stop limit, and good-until-canceled limit orders, specifically) don't need to do anything because on the close of trading the day prior, and before the market begins trading on the day of, stock trades that are not specifically designated as "do not reduce" should be adjusted downward by the amount of the upcoming dividend.

A Real-World Example of How the Ex-Dividend Date Is Used

On January 4, 2016, Johnson & Johnson announced that it was going to pay a $0.75 per share dividend for the quarter to its stockholders. The business, which is structured as a holding company with 265 operating subsidiaries manufacturing everything from baby powder and mouthwash to pharmaceuticals, heart stints, and Splenda sweetener, has increased its dividend going on 55 years.

This particular dividend announcement included three important dates:

  • The dividend payable date of March 8, 2016
  • The dividend record date the close of business on February 23, 2016
  • The ex-dividend date of February 19, 2016

This means you must own the stock before February 18, 2016, if you want to make it on the books when those books closed on February 23, 2016, for this particular dividend. That is the only way you will get the $0.75 per share on March 8, 2016, when it was distributed. If you buy it after that time, you'll have to wait until any future dividends are declared to receive one.

This also means that if you sold your shares on, say, February 22, 2016, even though you won't own the stock on March 8, 2016, you, and not the person to whom you sold the shares, will receive the dividend.