Dividends from firms listed on the FTSE jumped 25% in the first quarter to 18.8 billion pounds, a record for that time of year.
In total, firms paid out £3.8bn more than the same period in 2011, according to the Dividend Monitor from Capita Registrars, which analyses data provided by Exchange Data International.
FTSE 100 payouts grew 27.6% year-on-year to £17.7bn but the figure was distorted by Vodafone and Cairn Energy each paying out £2.2bn in special dividends.
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Vodafone's payout reflected a strong performance at Verizon Wireless, while Cairn was returning cash to shareholders on the disposal of assets in India.
Special dividends were a big feature of 2011, and are going to make an even larger contribution to the 2012 totals, Capita Registrars noted.
It added that adjusting for one-off factors the underlying picture was actually weaker than expected.
Underlying dividend growth was just 6.6% year-on-year in the first quarter, much slower than the 12.8% underlying increase in the full year 2011 and below Capita's forecast growth rate for 2012, the report showed.
The FTSE 100 registered underlying growth of 7.7%, which the report called "disappointing".
The FTSE 250 showed most weakness, although its dividends made up just 5% of the first quarter total.
Payouts from the smaller firms fell £90m (9%) year-on-year to £915m, the first quarterly decline since 2009.
Part of the weakness reflected technical factors to do with stocks being promoted to the FTSE 100, but there was also evidence of real weakness, Capita said.
The report found around £50m of the decline was due to more caution among mid-caps when it came to paying dividends.
Charles Cryer, Chief Executive of Capita Registrars, said early evidence suggested the UK economy was in better shape through the first quarter, and if the eurozone crisis abated, this could give companies greater confidence to return cash as the year goes by.
"For this reason we expect dividend growth will accelerate from here, but not enough to meet our original underlying forecast," he said.
"Europe's problems remain very serious - with the focus moving towards Spain, the crisis could return at any time, so the risks for the rest of the year are high."
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