BALTIMORE ( Stockpickr) -- Dividend excitement is on the rise again this week thanks to a Bloomberg article suggesting that Ford ( F) could resume its dividend payouts as early as 2012. The automaker, which has become a Wall Street darling in 2010 thanks to strong fundamental performance, completed paying 14 months of in-arrears dividends on its preferred shares -- a necessary hurdle to a payout on its common shares.

But potential dividends aside, we'll keep our focus on the stocks that actually hiked their shareholder payouts last week.

Historically, dividend stocks are a good place to be. Over the last 36 years, dividend stocks outperformed the rest of the S&P 500 by 2.5% annually, and they outperformed nonpayers by nearly 8% each and every year, all while paying out cash to their shareholders, according to a study from NDR. And right now, companies that are willing to part with cash in arguably tough times are worth a second look.

Without further ado, here's a look at this week's dividend increasers.
Also on Stockpickr

Retail electronics giant Best Buy ( BBY) started 2010 off to a shaky start as investor anxiety over a potential pullback in consumer spending translated into a 13.5% contraction in share price. But that hasn't stopped management from returning cash to shareholders in the form of a 15-cent quarterly dividend -- a 7.1% increase over the company's previous payout. That gives Best Buy a yield of 1.64% right now.

There's little question that retail electronics is one of the toughest spaces out there right now. While Circuit City's demise may have cooled direct pressure against Best Buy, competition is increasingly encroaching from price-conscious stores such as Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Target ( TGT). Now the Minnesota-based store chain needs to take its differentiation one step further in order to keep its operating advantages. In the meantime, solid financial health and a history is generous payouts should keep the dividend train moving in 2010.

One fund that's hoping so is the Amana Trust Growth Fund (AMAGX), which owns a sizable stake in Best Buy alongside positions in Apple ( AAPL) and Oracle ( ORCL). The fund holds a five-star rating from Morningstar.
Who Owns Best Buy?

Duke Energy ( DUK) is a diversified energy company that sports thick margins, strong cash flows and now a 6.14% dividend yield thanks to a modest 2.1% increase that brings the company's payouts to 24.5 cents per share each quarter. Duke's biggest business can be found in its regulated utility operations, but the company has been adept at buying and selling attractive energy businesses -- from natural gas to international electricity generation -- to generate above-average returns for shareholders.

It should come as no surprise then that Duke's pre-recession spinoff of Spectra Energy ( SE) was a major success for the former's balance sheet. As Duke continues to find more suitable acquisition targets, shareholders could benefit from entry into new markets.

The Franklin Utilities C Fund (FRUSX) is one of Duke's biggest institutional owners. The fund, which holds a concentrated portfolio of utility stocks and bonds, also owns shares of PG&E ( PCG) and Constellation Energy ( CEG).

Another high-yielding stock happens to be last week's smallest dividend increaser, Realty Income ( O). But while this REIT didn't post a major hike in its payouts to shareholders, it already sported a pretty sizable dividend check. The 0.2% increase from last week brings the trust's current yield to 5.7%.

Realty Income sports a diversified portfolio of 2,339 retail properties with stellar occupancy rates despite less-than-favorable times for retailers. By maintaining incredibly long-term triple-net leases with its tenants, Realty Income avoids paying property taxes, insurance and maintenance -- three costs that can be extremely variable over the length of a 20-year lease. That gives this REIT an exceptionally predictable net income year after year. And while its dividend has been slow to grow, Realty Income's payouts have been incredibly consistent and safe -- not to mention monthly.

That income has been appreciated by shareholders of dividend ETFs such as the WisdomTree MidCap Dividend ETF (DON), which also owns positions in Pitney Bowes ( PBI) and Pepco Holdings ( POM).

For the rest of this week's dividend stocks, check out the Dividend Stocks portfolio on Stockpickr.

And if you haven't already done so, join Stockpickr today to create your own dividend portfolio.

-- Written by Jonas Elmerraji in Baltimore.

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Jonas Elmerraji is the editor and portfolio manager of the Rhino Stock Report, a free investment advisory that returned 15% in 2008. He is a contributor to numerous financial outlets, including Forbes and Investopedia, and has been featured in Investor's Business Daily, in Consumer's Digest and on MSNBC.com.