Dividend-paying stocks are a great way to create a passive income stream in retirement. But you need to make sure you pick the right ones that are capable of paying in good times and bad. That way, you can guarantee that you get paid for the rest of your life.

Realty Income (O -0.42%), 3M (MMM -2.01%), and The Southern Company (SO -1.22%) are dividend stocks that have proven you can count on them to keep paying. Here's a quick look why.

1. A bellwether REIT

Real estate investment trust (REIT) Realty Income owns single-tenant properties, and its lessees are responsible for most of a property's operating costs. This is known as a net lease and is generally considered a low-risk way to invest in real estate.

Realty Income has a massive portfolio of around 6,600 properties, with 84% of rents coming from the retail space, 11% from industrial assets, and 3% from offices. (The rest is tied to an opportunistic agriculture investment.) Roughly 6% of rents come from the United Kingdom, and roughly half of its rent roll is backed by investment-grade tenants. 

A clock with rising stacks of coins leading to a piggy bank in which a person is depositing coins.

Image source: Getty Images.

However, the big draw here is that the dividend has been increased annually for more than 25 consecutive years, making Realty Income a Dividend Aristocrat. That streak notably includes a hike in each quarter of pandemic-hit 2020. Moreover, it pays its dividend monthly, so it's kind of like replacing a paycheck.

The only problem is that Realty Income's success isn't a secret and its stock is rarely cheap s a result. That said, its current yield of 4.1% is around the middle of the REIT's 10-year yield range. So it's probably fairly valued right now, which isn't bad for a REIT that's lived through multiple recessions and still managed to keep paying investors. 

2. An out-of-favor industrial 

The next name up is industrial giant 3M, which is probably best known among consumers for things like Post-it notes and Scotch Tape. However, the company's business spans across the consumer (15% of revenue), healthcare (25%), transportation and electronics (25%), and safety and industrial spaces (34%) with thousands of different products. It's a roughly $110 billion market cap, investment-grade-rated industrial giant with a global reach and enduring brands.

Moreover, 3M has long focused on research and development, looking for opportunities to use new technology across multiple categories within its product portfolio. This results in proprietary, and often premium, products and regular innovation as new tech moves from one product to another. 

The stock yields around 3% today, which is toward the higher end of its historical yield range. And perhaps more important, it's increased its dividend every year for over six decades. That makes it a Dividend King.

The only problem here is that 3M is facing a couple of lawsuits that could end up being pretty costly. But it's that headwind that has left the stock's yield so high and opened up an opportunity for long-term investors. If you can handle a bit of near-term uncertainty, 3M is the kind of company that can keep paying in good years and bad -- which is exactly what it's done for more than 60 years. 

3. A utility giant

The last name up is The Southern Company, one of the largest utilities in the United States. It serves 9 million customers, providing electricity in three states and natural gas distribution services in four. It also operates a long-term contract-based power division that sells electricity to other companies.

The business is actually pretty boring as far as utilities go. And while it has "only" increased its dividend annually for two decades at this point, it's paid at a higher or equal rate for more than seven decades. 

O Dividend Yield Chart

O Dividend Yield data by YCharts.

As a regulated utility, the company has to get rates approved by the government in exchange for a monopoly in the areas it serves. To gain approval, Southern is constantly investing in its business, with plans for around $40 billion in spending over the next five years. That money, and the rate hikes it will support, are likely to come through regardless of what happens on Wall Street.

The utility's 3.9% yield is generous by utility standards and is likely to see slow and steady growth along with the business. The caveat here is that the payout ratio is a little high for the industry, and Southern is the only company in the U.S. building a nuclear reactor today. (It's been a tough slog but is nearly over.) However, given Southern's long-term history on the dividend front, it's highly likely that the company will manage to muddle through the near term while still managing to pay investors well for sticking around. 

Buy the company first

When you're looking for an investment that can keep paying you no matter what's going on in the broader market, you need to make sure you own the right companies. Yield may be what attracts you to a name, but it's the business behind the yield that should be the driving force behind your investment decision.

On that score, Realty Income, 3M, and The Southern Company all look like the types of companies that can pay you, and pay you well, for the rest of your life.