In today's economy, many investors are increasingly turning to the stability and reliability of dividends.

This makes sense: Dividend-paying stocks not only tend to outperform nondividend-paying stocks over the long term -- by a whopping 10% to 4% margin, according to Ned Davis Research -- but they're also especially attractive during hard times. Noted investor and dividend expert Jeremy Siegel calls dividend stocks "bear market protectors and return accelerators." Their heightened yields tend to bolster portfolios, particularly during difficult times.

But not all dividend stocks are created equal. To help you find the best ideas, I compiled a diverse group of high-quality dividend payers. Read on to see their names, and discover what makes them so attractive right now.

Meet your all-star dividend portfolio
In selecting excellent dividend stocks, a few factors are critical. First and foremost, we want companies with attractive dividend yields. But it's also important to make sure that those dividends are both sustainable and have potential for growth by looking at whether the company can afford its payout, as well as examining their business fundamentals. I've done this for the dividend portfolio below.

Diversification is another important trait of a reliable dividend portfolio. Particularly during uncertain times, it's useful to make sure that you're not too exposed to any one sector, in case it suffers a targeted economic setback -- as financial-industry dividend payers did from 2008-2010. I made sure to choose stocks representing seven broad sector categories to help protect us further.

Lastly, it sure doesn't hurt when your portfolio enjoys the backing of other savvy investors with strong track records. To select a truly all-star dividend portfolio, I limited us to a select group of companies that not only earned the maximum five-star rating from our 180,000-member CAPS investing community, but have also caught the eye of the "All-Stars" ranked in CAPS' top 20%.

 Drumroll, please...

Company

All-Star Outperform/Underperform

Dividend Yield

Sector

El Paso Pipeline Partners (NYSE: EPB) 58 / 1 5.2% Energy and materials
Waste Management (NYSE: WM) 568/ 8 3.8% Industrials
Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) 1,794 / 22 3.3% Consumer goods
Abbott Labs (NYSE: ABT) 707 / 16 3.6% Healthcare
New York Community Bancorp (NYSE: NYB) 73 / 3 6.9% Financials
Telefonica (NYSE: TEF) 229 / 3 8.6% Telecommunications and information Technology
Southern Co. (NYSE: SO) 253 / 8 4.7% Utilities

Data from Motley Fool CAPS and Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Let's take a quick look at what makes each of these stocks reliable and attractive for dividend-hungry investors.

El Paso Pipeline Partners is a tax-advantaged master limited partnership that runs natural gas pipelines and a natural gas terminal. With net margins approaching 30%, it's a rather profitable business, and the company's long-dated contracts offer stability in addition to growth opportunities through expansion.

Procter & Gamble and Waste Management offer essential goods and services that generate reliable earnings even in a difficult economy. Similarly, Southern Co. is a steady, well-managed electric utility serving fast-growing regions in the Southeastern part of the country.

Abbott Labs focuses on a diverse group of specialized medicines and products, from diagnostic equipment to surgical devices to nutritional supplements and veterinary care. Last month, Abbott paid its 350th consecutive quarterly dividend since 1924. That payout also marked the company's 39th straight year of dividend increases.

New York Community Bancorp was strong enough to avoid taking any bailout funds, a remarkable feat for any company in the financial industry. Though the bank hasn't exactly overprovisioned, its loan loss rate is reasonably low and improving. At a time of turmoil for much of the industry, income growth has held up for this profitable bank that trades for just 1.1 times book value.

Spanish telephone giant Telefonica is such a high yielder in large part because of concerns about the Spanish economy. But the company only generates 30% of its revenue from Spain, as other European and fast-growth Latin American countries continue to make up an increasing share of its operations.

The bottom line
Right now, yields are attractive on dividend payers -- the same group of stocks research shows to be successful over both the long haul and unusual times. With some of the very best dividend stocks paying shareholders so much cash, now is a particularly great time to invest in a diverse group of reliable, high-quality dividend stocks.

If you want to have the income and stability dividend stocks can offer, consider the seven names I've selected above along with 13 more tickers from a free report from Motley Fool expert analysts called "13 High-Yielding Stocks to Buy Today," including one analyst Jim Royal called "the dividend play of a lifetime." Hundreds of thousands have requested access to this report and today I invite you to download it at no cost to you. To get instant access to the names of these 13 high yielders, simply click here -- it's free.

Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Telefonica, Abbott Laboratories, and Waste Management. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Procter & Gamble, Waste Management, Southern, and Abbott Laboratories. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.