Dividend stocks are great for investors who want both current income and future potential growth. But not every company makes paying shareholders a priority. Only the cream of the crop of blue chip dividend stocks rewards its investors with truly monumental dividend payments.

The top four dividend stocks in the U.S. market have each paid more than $14 billion in dividends to their shareholders over the past 12 months, topping the next-highest payer by more than $4 billion. Interestingly, they're the same stocks that have routinely topped this list, and they're likely to continue to appear there in the future. Below, we'll look more closely at these four dividend stocks and what's behind their bountiful payouts to shareholders.

The 4 top dividend payers

Company

Dividends Paid Over Past 12 Months

AT&T (NYSE:T)

$14.80 billion

ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)

$14.44 billion

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)

$14.12 billion

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)

$14.10 billion

Data source: S&P Global Market Intelligence.

AT&T

Telecommunications stocks have been among the largest dividend payers in the market for decades, largely because of the huge amounts of free cash flow that their businesses generate. For the most part, companies like AT&T have to make big up-front investments in order to build out their communications networks, whether it was the landline network that dominated the 20th century or the wireless networks that you'll find today. Borrowing up front to build out its infrastructure at low rates gives AT&T the chance to establish itself as a leader in the industry, and then it can pay down debt and still have plenty left over to pay dividends.

Table with calculator, glasses, money, and notebook reading Dividends.

Image source: Getty Images.

Of the stocks on this list, AT&T has the highest dividend yield, currently 5.3%. That means a relatively modest investment in AT&T can produce corresponding large amounts of income. AT&T arguably faces the most competition of the four companies on the list, however. The future of telecom is far from clear, but AT&T has adapted to previous transformative events in the industry and has the staying power to keep up with its rivals.

ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil also has a long history of sporting high dividend yields, and its current 5.2% payout leaves it just behind AT&T. The oil and natural gas business has some things in common with telecom, in the sense that up-front investment in oil fields is necessary to start drilling and producing energy products, but once that initial investment is made, it takes less capital to sustain production during the lifetime of each well.

Tough conditions in the oil market have presented a challenge for ExxonMobil, especially because the nature of the business for the industry giant is that it has to consistently replace declining production from aging wells just to keep revenue steady -- as well as produce growth. ExxonMobil has been able to make massive capital investments to find new opportunities in energy, all the while still supporting its dividend. Shareholders stand to see a big increase in the stock if oil prices return to their levels from several years ago, but for now, investors are treading water waiting for better conditions to come.

Apple and Microsoft

Apple and Microsoft have a lot in common, as they were both relatively late to the dividend arena. As technology companies, the two giants spent a long time reinvesting any and all available cash into their fast-growing businesses. It was only in the early to mid-2000s that Microsoft started paying any dividend at all, and Apple went through a long dry spell on the dividend front before reinstituting a dividend in 2012.

The yields on these two dividend stocks look horrible, at 1.2% for Microsoft and 1% for Apple. Yet the reason stems from the fact that even though the companies have increased their dividends at a healthy rate, their share prices have boomed even more quickly. Microsoft's move to the cloud and Apple's newfound growth engines from wearables and service offerings have spurred a new phase of growth. With rising prospects, dividends from these two companies look likely to keep rising in the years to come.

Look for dividend giants

All four of these companies have long track records of business success, and they've demonstrated a commitment to return capital to shareholders through dividends. With solid prospects, these four stocks could remain the top dividend payers in the market well into the future.