A dividend dilemma: Banks' attitudes to post-dated cheques can vary, Vincent Duggleby reports

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THOUSANDS of small British Telecommunications shareholders who tried to pay recent dividend cheques into bank or building society accounts were puzzled to be told they could not be accepted.

The problem arose because many BT cheques arrived by post on Monday, 27 September but were post-dated for Thursday, 30 September.

Cashiers at branches of Abbey National and Lloyds advised customers to come back later in the week. An Abbey cashier said: 'Some were quite upset because they had made a special journey.'

There was no warning on the counterfoils that the cheques could not be presented immediately and further confusion was caused by cashiers who, in an attempt to explain the clearing system, insisted that they could not be credited until 30 September.

Pauline Hedges, of the British Bankers Association, said there was no legal reason why banks should not accept a post-dated cheque a couple of days before the date of payment, but they were not obliged to do so.

''Legally the date that matters is the date the cheque is presented to the payer's bank, not the date it is paid in to the collecting bank,' she said.

''Only when it has been cleared does it become good money - usually three working days - and only then can it be drawn out in cash.'

On this basis the earliest BT shareholders might reasonably have paid in their dividends would have been Tuesday 28 September, and these should have been good money by the following Friday.

However, while two days is the minimum time, in practice many cheques take far longer to clear, especially through small building societies, and it may be 10 days or more before customers can draw on funds deposited.

Graham Johns, receiving bank director of Lloyds Bank Registrars, which acts for BT, said it was their duty, after agreeing the dividend date with the company, to get the payment to shareholders on or before the due date.

'There is a huge logistical problem with BT,' he said. 'In fact we pre-sort the envelopes and they go to the Post Office well ahead of time. It is then up to the Post Office when they are released.'

Inquiries at the big banks revealed opposing attitudes. 'Of course we will take them, it's common sense,' said Barclays, echoed by Midland, which said: 'There is no possibility our cashiers would refuse them.'

National Westminster was more cautious: 'We would discourage people from presenting a cheque early, but our cashiers use discretion.'

At Lloyds and Abbey National, however, the firm rule is not to accept them before the payment date. An Abbey spokesman said: 'Drawing some arbitrary line or giving cashiers discretion would only lead to more confusion'.

However, that is not borne out by personal experience. An Abbey National branch I deal with did take both BT and Scottish Power cheques a day early. The cashier accepted my argument that it didn't matter because the cheques would take at least two or three days to clear.

Abbey National said the only exception to its rule was for its own dividends, the latest of which were posted yesterday, post-dated Monday.

Ms Hedges said the post- dating problem would be solved if shareholders filled in a dividend mandate form to have the money credited direct to their accounts.

Unfortunately, companies are not obliged to send counterfoils separately to shareholders, though some now do, and banks have been known to charge for returning them.

Without the counterfoil, keeping records is that much more difficult since the tax credit cannot be checked or a claim made for a refund.

The fact remains that most small shareholders - two- thirds in the case of BT - choose not to use the mandate system, and it may not occur to them to look too closely at the date on the cheque.

So it might be helpful if companies gave a clear warning that dividends would not necessarily be accepted before the payment date. Alternatively, the banks might try to agree among themselves on a common policy.

(Photograph omitted)

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