Sure, dividend-paying companies can be good investments when times are tough. Their steady payouts can help us sleep better at night. But that doesn't mean we should buy them and then feel free to pull a Rip Van Winkle. We always need to keep an eye on our dividends, because while we may expect regular dividend hikes, they don't always happen. Sometimes dividends get frozen -- or eliminated entirely.

The recent dividend news hasn't all been bad:

  • McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) raised its dividend by 33%.
  • Aflac (NYSE:AFL) upped its dividend by 16%.
  • General Electric (NYSE:GE) is holding its dividend steady.

But more than a few payouts have gotten the axe:

  • Zions Bancorp (NASDAQ:ZION) is reducing its dividend by 26%.
  • SunTrust (NYSE:STI) cut its dividend by 30%.
  • Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) lowered its dividend by 50%.
  • Brunswick (NYSE:BC) trimmed its dividend by... 92%.

What's going on? It's the economy, Fool. Brunswick, for example, specializes in things like boating and bowling, and these days, fewer people than usual are mulling over marine purchases. Zions Bank is one of many financial institutions suffering these days, though it's gotten preliminary approval for a cash infusion from the U.S. Treasury.

According to the folks at Standard & Poor's, fourth-quarter dividends are projected to fall 10% -- the worst decrease in 50 years.

How to handle it
Pay attention to the dividends you've signed up for, and to the companies behind them. Make sure the firms stay healthy and growing. Evaluate payout ratios, which represent the percentage of earnings paid out as dividends. If a company's payout ratio rises from, say, 48% to 85%, be careful. That gives the company very little wiggle room. If it needs cash to pay down debt, or wants to acquire another company, its hands are tied by dividend obligations -- unless it reduces or eliminates that dividend.

If you're a retiree or a near-retiree, and you depend on dividends for a big chunk of your income, this is an even more critical matter. Few dividends are guaranteed. Even General Electric is breaking its 32-year streak of dividend increases this time around. And believe me, companies rarely reduce dividends or break streaks unless they feel they have to.

If you'd like to seek out sizable, growing dividends, I encourage you to take a free 30-day trial of our Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter, featuring many firms with dividend yields greater than 6%.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of McDonald's and General Electric. Bank of America is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Aflac is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Try our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.