Dividend stocks can make for wonderful long-term investments. This is especially true when the company behind the stock has both a strong current business, as well as a nice opportunity for years of steady growth. The best dividend stocks will not only be able to grow the dividend regularly, but will also reward shareholders with price appreciation as the business itself grows bigger and more profitable. 

And when it comes to the best dividend stocks, three that are major parts of my own portfolio include CareTrust REIT (CTRE -0.35%)ONEOK Inc. (OKE -0.08%), and Brookfield Infrastructure Partners (BIP -4.77%). If a nice yield, steady dividend growth, and the potential for long-term price appreciation are what you're looking for, keep reading to learn why these three dividend stocks should be at the top of your list. 

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Investors in this stock are getting a very big raise 

Pipeline and gathering systems operator ONEOK recently completed its acquisition of its master limited partnership, ONEOK Partners. As a result, the company plans to boost the dividend by a whopping 21% soon, with further annual increases of 9%-11% through 2021. 

Consider this: ONEOK shares already yield 4.8% at recent prices -- a very strong payout for income-seeking investors. After the upcoming 21% bump, buying around the current $52 share price would result in an even better 5.7% yield going forward, and that's before factoring in the potential double-digit increases in each of the next four years. At the low end of those increases, investors who buy today could see a dividend yield of a remarkable 8% on the current share cost in 2021. 

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Is this a "too good to be true" scenario? A few things have to go right for ONEOK for this to play out, but there's a lot more predictability in the company's path forward than it might seem. To start, the merger with ONEOK Partners will drive a few immediate benefits that will support the dividend. The company's ability to depreciate the assets it is acquiring in the merger, as well as other tax benefits, will result in ONEOK paying no cash income taxes through at least 2021. At the same time, almost 90% of the company's cash flows are through long-term, fee-based contracts, unrelated to commodity prices. This gives ONEOK investors a strong margin of safety in its cash flows. 

Management also expects that the merged company will have a better debt profile, and that should lower its cost of capital. If this proves true -- a recent debt offering indicates that it will -- this will help support growth while enhancing returns. 

Boring is beautiful (and very profitable)

Brookfield Infrastructure Partners' assets are a lot like air: You need it, but rarely think about it. But take it away and it's a very big problem. The the fiber-optic data line your business uses for its data connection, the shipping port that supplies your neighborhood grocer, and the gas line that supplies the power plant your electricity comes from are the same way. You never think about them when they're working perfectly, but if one of these critical infrastructure assets isn't working correctly, the impact can be disastrous. It's these "hidden" yet highly important assets that Brookfield Infrastructure specializes in. 

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Several things that make Brookfield an ideal dividend investment. First, these assets are cash cows, producing significant and steady cash flows often with minimal impact from economic swings. Factor in its geographic diversity, and the inflation index built into 70% of its EBITDA, and Brookfield Infrastructure is both inflation and recession-resistant. 

Brookfield Infrastructure yields 4.3% at its recent price of $41 per share, and has a long history of distribution growth. For the long term, management's target is 5%-9% annual payout growth, a steady rate of increases that would result in substantial long-term returns. Caveat: Investors should note that as an MLP, Brookfield Infrastructure is not an ideal investment for a retirement account. If you're looking to buy in a taxable account, Brookfield Infrastructure should be on your shortlist. 

A small company taking advantage of a very big trend

An average of 10,000 American baby boomers reach retirement age every day. That's more than 3.5 million new retirees every year -- a trend that will more than double the population of older Americans between 2010 and 2040. Furthermore, these older Americans are already enjoying more active retirements, and living longer on average, than their parents did. That's fantastic. 

Unfortunately, the downside is that this population is already pushing the limits of the capacity of the existing senior housing and skilled nursing facilities in operation, and a lot more are going to need to be opened over the next 20 years to house and care for these older Americans. This is a tremendous opportunity for a small company like CareTrust REIT. 

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CareTrust currently owns fewer than 180 senior housing and rehab facilities, making it a small player considering that there are over 15,000 skilled nursing facilities alone in the U.S. But with the senior population on track to increase by almost 20 million in the next decade alone, a lot more will be needed, and CareTrust is well positioned to see outsize growth as a result. It has already grow substantially, adding more than 70 facilities to its portfolio since going public in 2014. 

That's resulted in big cash flow and dividend growth since paying its first regular dividend in early 2015. CareTrust has increased the payout three times and grown the dividend by 48% already. At recent prices around $18, buying CareTrust today would lock in a yield above 4%, with very good prospects of regular increases for potentially decades to come.