Is your retirement on the horizon or already here? If so, it's certainly not too soon to think about restructuring your portfolio, if you haven't already. A little less risk and a little more stability are in order. A healthy helping of income wouldn't hurt, either, particularly since your work-driven income is at its end.

With this as the backdrop, here's a rundown of three dividend-paying stocks any investor now in or nearing retirement should consider. Any one of them could be a welcome addition to a portfolio, but all three of them together would bring a well-balanced mix of income and capital appreciation to the table.

Older couple sitting at the kitchen table in front of a computer, reviewing some paperwork.

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1. Duke Energy

  • Dividend yield: 3.82%
  • Five-year dividend growth rate: 3.2%

Starting with the safest stock, new or near-retirees should put utility Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) on their prospective picks list.

Think about it. Consumers may skip a trip to the mall or postpone a vacation if money gets tight. However, they're probably going to keep the lights on, no matter what it takes -- which makes utility companies reliable dividend payers. Duke Energy is one of the best in this regard. It hasn't failed to pay a quarterly dividend since 1926 and has increased its annual payout every year since 2007.

And don't be surprised if this stock starts to dish out above-average gains soon. Activist investor group Elliott Management recently -- and publicly -- urged Duke to split itself into three different entities in order to unlock unrealized value. 

Such a move may or may not be merited, for the record; the company certainly doesn't think it is. Duke Energy may instead initiate a top-down overhaul rather than acting on Elliott's suggestion, which would still draw out new value for the stock and (hopefully) appease Elliott. The utility's exact response doesn't entirely matter though. What matters is that such activist interest does typically add value for shareholders, one way or another.

2. The Coca-Cola Company

  • Dividend yield: 3.05%
  • Five-year dividend growth rate: 3.7%

Did you know The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) does very little of its own bottling and distribution?

That hasn't always been the case, mind you. Several years ago the beverage company began selling bottling operations -- which aren't all that profitable -- back to its contracted bottlers so it could focus on its higher-margin brand-licensing business. While the move would ultimately crimp revenue, the beverage giant would actually be able to generate stronger net income. The dust of these changes was just starting to settle too, when WHAM! The COVID-19 pandemic took hold, wrecking the ultimate upside of the strategic shift. Shares fell a whopping 40% between 2020's February high and March's low, and though Coca-Cola shares are now up from that low, they've yet to erase all of that pullback.

That lagging performance is the crux of your opportunity, letting you step in while the dividend is approaching 4%.

While sales may feel lower than they have in the past for The Coca-Cola Company even after allowing for the post-pandemic rebound, keep in mind that's all by design. Licensing and franchising is a much more profitable business model, allowing the company to clear plenty of cash to support the dividend. Last-quarter's operating profit of $0.55 per share more than covers the quarterly payout of $0.42 per share -- and that was on "off" quarter, thanks to lingering coronavirus headwinds.

3. Merck

  • Dividend yield: 3.17%
  • Five-year dividend growth rate: 7.1%

Finally, add drugmaker Merck (NYSE:MRK) to your list of great dividend stocks that are just about perfect for retirees. The company doesn't need much of an introduction, as it's one of the market's oldest and biggest pharmaceutical outfits. It's also the name behind blockbuster franchises like cancer-fighting drug Keytruda, diabetes treatment Januvia, and HPV vaccine Gardasil.

Merck happens to be the riskiest of the three dividend stocks being scrutinized here, as the pharmaceutical industry is easily the least predictable of the three sectors represented on this list. Drug patents expire, newer and better rival treatments come to the market, and therapies occasionally lose their approval. It's a never-ending race.

However, Merck has repeatedly proven it can compete. Its drug portfolio generated $48 billion worth of sales last year, $15 billion of which was turned into operating income, $10 billion of which was cleared as operating cash flow. And that was a fairly typical year. Indeed, the company's never really suffered from poor profits -- at least not for very long -- nor has cash flow dried up for more than a year at a time.

It matters. These cash-cow drug franchises supply the company with funds used to either develop new drugs or acquire them outright, like the autoimmune disease therapies it's bringing in-house with the recent purchase of Pandion Therapeutics. The company's made roughly 30 such deals in just the past few years. While they haven't been cheap, they've been effective. 2020's per-share earnings of $5.94 are 65% stronger than per-share annual earnings from just five years back.

This strong profit growth, in turn, has allowed Merck to grow its dividend payout at an incredible 7.1% pace in recent years, which most other blue-chip companies can't keep up with. Look for comparable growth going forward.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.