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All income investors love a stock with a good yield. The smart ones look for dividends that are sustainable and likely to grow. The question is, 'In an uncertain world, how do you determine which dividends are sustainable and likely to grow?'

Of coarse, there is no way to know with exact certainty which dividends are sustainable, but there are tell-tale signs that often foretell the future. Let's look at a couple of them.

Free Cash Flow Payout

A dividend payout ratio is supposed to provide the investor with an indication of how much cash as a percent of earnings the company is paying its investors. A payout ratio based on GAAP net earnings could potentially have a lot of noise in it and not provide a clear picture of the economic condition of the business. Dividends are paid with cash, not Net Earning, EPS, EBIT, EBITDA or any other metric Wall Street analysts like to look at.

In calculating a payout ratio, I prefer Free Cash Flow over the traditional payout ratio based on GAAP earnings. Free Cash Flow is Operating Cash Flow less normal capital expenditures (normally the first line in the investing section). For a business to remain viable it must replace capital assets when they wear out. The formula for Free Cash Flow Payout is simply Annual Dividend Per Share divided by Free Cash Flow Per Share. The lower the ratio, the better.

Debt To Total Capital

To pay and raise its dividend a company must generate sufficient free cash flow. However, it is not enough to just generate the cash, it has to be available for dividend payments. Many companies generate significant free cash flow, but often that cash is already spoken for in the form of debt obligations.

To gauge how levered a company is, the metric I like to look at is debt to total capital. Debt includes both long-term and short-term debt and is readily available on the liabilities side of the balance sheet. Total capital is a combination of debt and shareholders equity. When you divide debt by total capital a desirable rate is something less than 35%, but I will consider rates up to 50% on a short-term basis.

This week week, I screened my dividend growth stocks database for stocks with debt to total capital less than 30%, a free cash flow payout less than 50% and a dividend yield above 3%. The results are presented below:

Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX) Yield: 3.1% | Debt/Tot.Cap.: 8.9% | FCF Payout: 46.9%

Chevron Corporation is a global integrated oil company (formerly ChevronTexaco) that has interests in exploration, production, refining and marketing, and petrochemicals.

Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) Yield: 3.1% | Debt/Tot.Cap.: 17.3% | FCF Payout: 27.4%

Microsoft, the world's largest software company, develops PC software, including the Windows operating system and the Office application suite.

Meredith Corp. (NYSE:MDP) Yield: 3.3% | Debt/Tot.Cap.: 20.8% | FCF Payout: 41.8%

Meredith Corp. derives its earnings mainly from magazine publishing (primarily Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies' Home Journal) and ownership of 12 TV stations.

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) Yield: 3.5% | Debt/Tot.Cap.: 23.2% | FCF Payout: 47.1%

Johnson & Johnson is a leader in the pharmaceutical, medical device and consumer products industries.

Cullen/Frost Bankers, Inc. (NYSE:CFR) Yield: 3.5% | Debt/Tot.Cap.: 28.2% | FCF Payout: 30.1%

Cullen/Frost Bankers, Inc., is one of the largest multi-bank holding companies headquartered in Texas, and has more than 110 offices in various cities in the state.

ConocoPhillips Co. (NYSE:COP) Yield: 3.9% | Debt/Tot.Cap.: 24.7% | FCF Payout: 20.0%

ConocoPhillips Co. was formed via the 2002 merger of Phillips Petroleum and Conoco, is the fourth largest integrated oil company in the world.

Community Trust Bank Corp. (NASDAQ:CTBI) Yield: 4.3% | Debt/Tot.Cap.: 21.9% | FCF Payout: 23.2%

Community Trust Bank Corp. owns and operates Community Trust Bank, Inc. of Pikeville, KY, which provides commercial banking services in Kentucky and West Virginia; and a trust company.

As with past screens, the data presented above is in its raw form. Some of the the companies would be disqualified for poor dividend fundamentals. However some of the others may be worth additional due diligence.

Disclosure: Long CTBI, COP, JNJ, MSFT, CVX in my dividend growth portfolio. See a list of all my dividend growth holdings here.

Source: 7 Higher-Yielding, Low Debt Stocks With A Tiny Payout Ratio